Filmmaker Sandi Simcha Dubowski had a hard time finding Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who would say, in front of a camera, that they're gay. He even had trouble finding rabbis who would discuss how they deal with gay members of their Orthodox or Hasidic communities. But after five years, he's releasing Trembling Before G-D (Jewish tradition decrees that the word "God" not be written out), his first feature film, a powerful documentary that brings into focus the anguish and despair felt by shunned homosexual Jews.
DuBowski's interviews with gay Jews from around the world (some are filmed in silhouette because they fear being thrown out of their synagogues if they're identified) are painful to witness. At times you wonder how they can go on.
"Leaving the community, for some people, is a commendable act of survival," says DuBowski, who was in Toronto to discuss the film when it screened at this year's Hot Docs festival. "They would have committed suicide if they'd tried to fight and stay.
"There are significant numbers of people who feel leaving means cutting their left arm off to save their right, cutting their spirituality off to save their sexuality. For some people who grew up Orthodox or Hasidic, Jewish life is like their breath, everything they know. It's their parents, family, bar mitzvahs, weddings, Torah studies, yeshiva schools, Shabbats, foods, smells, tastes, singing, praying. It's their lifeline to God."
One woman, Michelle, who grew up in Toronto and Brooklyn and who has been disowned by her Hasidic family, believed she was one of a kind.
"When Michelle says in the film that she really thought she was the only Orthodox Hasidic lesbian, she means it," notes DuBowski. "Only through the process of making the film was I able to introduce her to other women, who introduced her to others, and they've now formed Ortho Dykes in New York City."
Many of this film's subjects have found peace thanks to DuBowski's efforts. Grown children have been reconciled with parents, while others have discovered that cutting ties with unsupportive families is the only way to live. DuBowski even played matchmaker, bringing together two men who remain in a couple to this day.
The film has sparked debate in Orthodox communities around the world. Some of it has been negative -- the film was banned in Mexico City when Orthodox Jewish leaders and evangelical Christian leaders banded together to stop its screening.
Yet most of the response has been amazingly positive. "Fourteen Orthodox synagogues have asked that we show the film in their synagogue," says DuBowski. "We screened the film in an Orthodox day school because the principal said his grade 11 and 12 students must see the film."
But the big question remains: can Orthodox and Hasidic laws change so as to accept homosexual followers?
"I couldn't have made this film if I didn't believe the Orthodox community is capable of change," says DuBowski. "If I didn't, I'd be dehumanizing and demonizing that community. I've seen rabbis walk out of the film saying, "I thought I knew the answer before the film started, but now I don't know.'
"It's much holier to say, "I don't know' than "I know.' I'm trying to get Orthodox religious leaders not to assume they know the answer until they've heard the human testimony."
DuBowski and rabbi Steven Greenberg lead a week of special events surrounding the film's release. For details, see 7 Days listings.
Trembling before g-d directed by Sandi Simcha DuBowski, produced by Dubowski and Marc Smolowitz. 84 minutes. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (July 19). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 73. Rating: NNNNN