A DESCRIPTION OF SANDI Simcha DuBowski's documentary Trembling Before G-d sounds like the start of a bad ethnic joke: Did you hear the one about the gay Orthodox Jew? The film, however, is no joke at all, as it focuses on the dire plight of religiously devout Jewish homosexuals.
Shot in ghoulish yellow shades, the movie is also no great shakes at the stylistic level. Both visually and verbally, in fact, it's remarkably ugly--informed, it seems, by the no-frills aesthetic, or anti-aesthetic, that characterizes much of contemporary Orthodox life. Many of DuBowski's subjects appear uneasy in their bodies. The women, in particular, tend to be overweight or draped in huge, tentlike outfits. And most of the people interviewed speak the ingrown, unrefined language of the modern Ashkenazi ghetto. DuBowski relies on the usual parade of talking heads and on a series of rather sentimental shots of Jerusalem at sunset and other illustrative sequences showing "typical" religious scenes in silhouette. The hiddenness of the figures here is clearly meant to be symbolic--by the end of the film, we grasp the deeper logic of this technique--yet for the most part, it registers as a kitsch effect, a strained attempt perhaps to echo the traditional Jewish folk art of paper cutouts.
But none of this really matters. The unblinking honesty of those interviewed and the director's willingness to probe with wide-ranging sympathy this tremendously complex and difficult subject amply compensate for the film's formal crudeness. Trembling is a potent, painful document--and one that's fascinating for the way that it poses explicitly Jewish questions as it also reckons with more universal and heartrending concerns.
On the parochial front, there is something undeniably, almost paradigmatically Jewish about the nature of the Solomonic conundrum at the core of the film. Homosexuality is, needless to say, forbidden in the Bible. The movie begins with a somber black screen on which we read the Levitical injunction regarding "a man who lies with a man as one lies with a woman" and the blunt declaration that "they shall be put to death, their blood is on them." Though the Mosaic death penalty is no longer handed down in religious Jewish circles (nor are the lashings prescribed in the Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth-century rabbinic code, for "women who rub against each other"), one married ultra-Orthodox lesbian featured in the film is terrified to come out for fear that her children will be taken from her. This, too, is a death sentence of sorts.
The history of Judaism, though, is loud with the voices of competing (and sometimes conflicting) interpretations of the Law. In this way, the questions posed by the subjects of Trembling come directly out of a long tradition of rabbinic sifting, parsing, and weighing of priorities. Is it--a slender, handsome, and very religious thirty-something gay named David asks--more important not to lie with a man or not to be alone? As one of the other interviewees, a rabbi, points out, God arranges for Adam to have Eve's company before He gets around to doing much else in the Bible.
David's case is especially poignant. One of the most self-aware figures in the film, he knows exactly who and what he is, yet he still hasn't arrived at any satisfactory conclusions about how best to live as a homosexual and a practicing Jew. The film follows him through his agonized attempts to strike a reasonable balance between these apparently clashing sides of his personality, both of which he is absolutely committed to. For all his suffering, he comes across as a knowing young man with a sharp sense of humor and a fairly wrenching ability to articulate the inner turmoil he's experiencing as he's experiencing it.
He is able, for instance, to describe for the camera his enormously mixed feelings toward the rabbis and psychologists who advised him for years to try and "cure" himself of his gayness by eating figs, reciting psalms, and practicing a preposterous sort of behavior-modification therapy that entailed flicking a rubber band on his wrist or biting his tongue every time he saw an attractive man. …