Trembling Before G-d: Two Disc DVD
The news story came out of Borough Park in late summer 2003. Two missing teenage girls – missing for a few days while the Chasidic community deliberated and finally decided to alert the authorities. My immediate, almost instinctual reaction after hearing the sketchy details: They ran away from the small, dark, cloaked, bound, shaved, and skirted ghetto. Escaped impossibly as if light from a black hole. Was there evidence suggesting this? No, but from my arrogant modern orthodox perch, I kind of just assumed it.
You know how the story ends. Two girls in forbidden fashions with jobs and an apartment in Phoenix, Arizona. The quote from the teens, “we couldn’t live with those rules anymore.”
Let’s jump across time and space to a class room somewhere in Queens. One of the more precocious and/or obnoxious students comments to the rabbi that what the class has just learned is stupid. With the subject being divine writ, stupidity isn’t exactly an option. The rabbi, like the good, slightly nervous, slightly confident, slightly educated product of the chinuch system he is, reflexively offers the only doctrine he knows: “It’s not stupid, you just don’t understand”. Ahhhh, yeshiva.
Trembling Before G-d caused somewhat of a stir in the Jewish community when it was released last year. The shoe string documentary which concentrates on homosexuality within orthodox circles is the first of its kind – an expose of a sub-culture not necessarily unexpected or unfathomable, but until now without a willing or able exposer.
Enters Sandi Simcha Dubowski, although seemingly not a master of the genre from an aesthetic, stylistic end, a man who does know how to doggedly track down a story and get the relevant interviews.
There are two issues Trembling aims to confront. The first is, at least to Jews with some affiliation, not at all novel, and in many ways rather repetitive. That life within ultra-orthodox borders is single minded, unnaturally traditional, unquestionably repressive, probably psychologically harmful, and arguably backward. Two girls recently returned from Phoenix might agree.
Dubowski, unfortunately for insiders as ourselves but likely of interest to those out of the know, spends the bulk of his film shedding light on this aspect of the religious community. The majority of the interviews merely allow us to hear articulated what we surely could have surmised on our own: It’s tough coming out in an unaccepting environment (this is, however, universal). For orthodox Jews, the film more or less reissues the well tread terrain of Doing Time on Maple Drive and In & Out, but with the added awkwardness of a Yiddish ta’am.
The more intriguing and supremely philosophical topic which this film has not the gravity or wherewithal to cover is this: Why would G-d call homosexuality an abomination and then go ahead and create children who, without fault, are virtually intrinsic outcasts. What a damn frustrating, scalding, and rebellious question. Let’s take it a step further and give it some teeth as Dubowski does with his best and most gut wrenchingly miserable, conflicted study, David. In by far the primarily meaningful and telling scene here, David, who truly dares to dwell on the issues unlike Dubowski’s more “frum” but somewhat oblivious studies, meets his old rabbi in Israel (this is the same guru who did the kiruv job on Jane’s Addiction front man, Perry Farrell) David pleads, “Am I supposed to be alone…is that what Hashem wants!”. The spiritual leader appears astonished, impotent, and glaringly unarmed – not prepared to face the challenge of a sweet, human neshama with devotion to Judaism who simply feels about men how others feel about women.
How much safer and easier is it for our rabbis when these troublemakers choose to disappear! How grateful they must be for the human inclination to shrink away from shame and disappointment.
The other six interviews don’t compare with the stinging, bitter aftertaste of David. Some are too quirky, others downright annoying. Mark, a flamboyant, British, charedi yeshiva student, doesn’t have the maturity or introspection to engage us in his struggle. He seems to float somewhere not quite in this velt, but offers a sympathetic and entertaining personality, so he is used quite often to move the film along. Malka, an ex-Chasidic lesbian, could be any other black sheep Chasid, regardless of sexual preference. Any character here who avoids the great theological cloud hovering over this subject adds, from a uniquely Jewish perspective, nothing new. We already know the ultra-orthodox community can be stifling and we already know many homosexuals have a hard time finding solace.
Two orthodox lesbians don’t allow us to see their faces (creating an emotional distance with the audience) and are featured in what are supposed to be real life situations, but the setups end up appearing contrived, convenient, and amateurishly sappy (walks on the beach., etc.). A final interview is with a childlike older man who touchingly seeks to reunite with his father and clearly misses his Chasidic roots, but has apparently convinced himself that there is no place for him there (and he’s sadly correct).
Where are all the intellectual, frum, reflective homosexual Jews? Dubowski, with the possible exception of the expressive and underused lesbian Devorah, who is married, does not seem to uncover many…and that is a provocative revelation in its own right.
The newly released DVD has a second disc which includes an extended conversation with Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an insightful man who happens to be, as the subtitle claims, the first openly gay orthodox rabbi. It also features a follow up to the film where viewers can see how the film has changed people’s lives and perspectives.
Trembling Before G-d, by no stretch a well constructed documentary film, is an important breakthrough for Jewish orthodoxy because ignoring a consistent problem helps no one. Dubowski has presented us forcefully with the dilemma…now what? There are lovely people who love G-d suffering …now what? My opinion on that point is irrelevant, but I appreciate the courage, or perhaps savvy, of Dubowski to take this affair to the masses and shake things up, to demand a mini revolution.
Who knows if anything will really change long term because of this film? You are as aware as I how insular and curmudgeonly our traditional legal code system can be. Who know if our rabbis have, to quote Blu Greenberg, the will to find the halachic way? What Trembling has shown me is that orthodox Judaism is losing, or at the very least, alienating, perfectly worthy members of the nation for an inadequate reason – and that’s just stupid. Wait. I apologize. I mean I don’t understand.
Q & A with Sandi Dubowski
Q: How did you come upon this subject and how is it that these people felt comfortable talking to you?
A: I grew up conservative in Brooklyn. Sometimes people ask me why make the movie. There is no good reason. I started off not knowing anything about orthodox people in general and as I learned more about that world, I uncovered this whole other world. I found out that these people within the community are in pain and are struggling. The film is part of a story. The larger story is the orthodox community and this film is changing people’s lives and changing communities. It’s astounding. This is why the DVD is critical. It allows us to tell the larger story in our feature Trembling on the Road. Since the film was released we have done 600 events to inform and educate people about this problem. The experience making this film has made me more religious than I was.
Q: Did you make this film to help Jews or to let the rest of the world know what is going on within the Jewish community?
A: Both. The Jewish community needed to wake up. The film teaches that there is no perfect Jew – we are all outsiders on some level. We all feel pain and loneliness and have differences. Speaking to people with all backgrounds about this film made me see that they all reflect upon it in their own way. I spoke to a Catholic African American woman and she said that she sees on her level what the film is about. People from any background will see it in their own way. People are so intimate and honest and make themselves so vulnerable in the movie that the themes are universal.
Q: Who are the two young men staring into each other’s eyes on the poster for the film? I did not recognize them form the movie.
A: They weren’t in it. No one who I interviewed would agree to be on the poster. So these two guys, one is orthodox and went to Flatbush and the other is conservative, they are married and have adopted a baby who is being raised Jewish, they agreed to do it.
Trembling Before G-d is now available on DVD at all major video outlets. More information is available at Http://www.tremblingbeforeg-d.com
Mr. Dubowski is currently working on a second film, In the name of Allah, about homosexuality in the Muslim community.
Send comments to bangitout.com movie editor, Jordan Hiller: email@example.com
Bangitout.com is tremendous fun, even for a
well-informed, non-observant, non Hebrew speaking,
apostate Conservadox bisexual Jew, like me.
Your review was one of the best I've read. Most
newspaper and magazine film critics focused only on
the subject matter of the film without commenting at
all about the film itself: how the images look on the
screen, the music, the organization and so on. I
agree with your comments about all that.
I lived on Yeshiva's campus for a dozen years from
1984 to 1996; I had a cheap rent and a big place. I
met Daniel Chesir, one of the guys on the Trembling
poster, while I lived up there, and later met both he
and his lover, Ian, at CBST.
I've been on the JONAH list for about a year. Jews
Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality purports to
help gay Jewish men "to change", so the organization
--Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berk, two parents with
gay sons -- has been distressed by the film.
I wrote them as follows....
I’ve met most of these “Jewish militant gay
activists.” I don’t think militant describes their
behavior; persistent yes, militant no. Whenever they
do speak up to change Judaism, synagogue-by-synagogue,
group-by-group, plenty of people listening to them
present contrary points of view. Jonah’s not at all
alone in presenting contrary points of view;
particularly that homosexuality is not innate, but
same sex attraction disorder -- SSAD. Indeed, many
Jewish men and women with sexual identity problems
think and feel that way, at least at the beginning.
At the JTS conference held last Spring and at gay
synagogues across the world; legal reasoning,
historical analysis, linguistics and so forth are used
to construe most homosexual practices to not be
strictly prohibited by Judaism. The rabbis and
would-be rabbis are finding why active homosexuals
should not “be put to death”. They are reasoning why
gay men and lesbians should “Choose life”
For instance, there are few specific prohibitions
against lesbianism within the Bible and Talmud. So
lesbian sexual behavior can be construed to be
allowable within God’s plan. This gives great
reassurance to women with SSAD.
For most male homosexual behavior, rabbis can produce
exegeses that similarly make the behavior allowable
within God’s plan. However, anal intercourse is
especially problematic. The most creditable argument
presented is that the use of a condom complies with
the written Law — though certainly not with the spirit
of that Law — because the passive man is not in direct
contact with the active man. The condom keeps them
apart. Employing a condom as the barrier, the “fence
around the Torah” to enable Jewish homosexuals men to
live an ennobled life is (how can I resist the pun?)
quite a stretch.
In my experience, the closest relationship homosexual,
observant Jews have is their relationship to God.
These men and women may abandon active homosexuality
by becoming celibate, but cannot possibly conceive of
abandoning God by becoming apostate. Through their
theology and prayers, after years of suffering, their
eyes have opened and they see themselves to be within
For some homosexual, observant Jews, to define
themselves as suffering SSAD is to remove God’s grace;
they damn themselves. Consequently, Jonah’s way
threatens both their self- concept and faith.
Joel, I’m going to be respectfully blunt - you have
bought the gay activist’s message and we disagree with
most of what you wrote in the letter. I will briefly
give you a few examples of what I mean: Lesbianism is
absolutely forbidden by the Torah & Talmud.
Where is it written that Lesbianism is forbidden?
Every time it is written that the Jews should not
follow the ways of the Egyptians because they are an
abomination - they are including homosexuality because
both male & female marriage was allowed in Egypt. So
the activists’ message that the ancient Jews knew
nothing about committed relationships between
homosexuals is a lot of hooey.
You state that many Jews are openly giving opposite
points of view when the Trembling people speak - it is
not true because we’ve been to several of their
presentations and no one speaks up, except sometimes
mentioning religious prohibitions - because almost no
one knows about the real possibility of healing SSA
and that it is not inborn.
The Trembling group has openly stated that JONAH is
false and that NO ONE can change - we’ve heard them,
many of our members have heard them. JONAH does not
believe that the Trembling group is malicious or
intends to do harm - but they are doing great damage -
as well as some good. To bring the issue of
homosexuality out of the closet, to help our fellow
Jews who suffer because of SSA, to end the awful
discrimination against Jews who feel SSA - this is
wonderful and we praise them for this.
BUT, to say that SSA is inborn and unchangeable is
doing so much damage to the world, to families, to
individuals, to young people - that we can hardly
total the damage. To say that everyone can’t change
(especially older people who have never felt any
attraction to the opposite sex) is probably a truism -
BUT - to tell young people (and that is their message)
that you can do nothing about your SSA and you should
accept it, come out of the closet, and join the gay
world - is tantamount to massive destruction of the
lives of those people since gay men die 20-30 years
earlier than straight men. I’ve had gay activists
laugh at me when I said that - and their response?
“Oh, your talking about AIDS - if not for AIDS, that’s
not true.” Sadly, it is true - for AIDS; for bowel
disease, for Hepatitis, for all the sexually
transmitted diseases; for alcoholism, drug addiction,
depression, suicide (all of which are 2-3 times more
common in the gay community) - and JONAH believes
they’re more common because of the underlying
pathology - not because of homophobia - although that
does play a part.
From Eli M.
Thank you so much for your excellent movie review. I have seen the movie and your review is 100% on the money. Your views on the 2 runaway girls from BP, is right on.
Please write more articles and more reviews, i thoroughly enjoyed.
SUBJECT: Trembling before Nausea
"There are two issues Trembling aims to confront....
That life within ultra-orthodox borders is single
minded, unnaturally traditional, unquestionably
repressive, probably psychologically harmful, and
Mr. Hiller, either your exposure to traditional
Judaism has been limited or your experiences have
created a signficant bias, which leaves you
unqualified to comment.
"Do not lie with a male as you would with a woman. It
is a disgusting act."
This is more clear than many Torah edicts for which
even a modern orthodox Jew like yourself is probably
"Why would G-d call homosexuality an abomination and
then go ahead and create children who, without fault,
are virtually intrinsic outcasts."
Obviously, if there is a commandment to refrain from a behavior, there must be the ability to do so. This the basic tenet of traditional Jewish belief called "freewill". One may have a compulsion to murder, committ adultry, steal, etc., but this does not give license to actual engage in these prohibited activities.
...I do indeed see more than a reporter/critic's
objective review of a film in your article. The
director's intent and your own feelings are interwoven
in a manner that makes it difficult to distinguish.
Perhaps my comments are more on the style in which the
review was written than on the content. However, if
you are interested in the topic see www.mesora.org,
Parshas Achary Mot 5763, for a review on the Torah's
view towards homosexuality.
Although homosexuality in the Jewish community is a
reality that must be discussed to be addressed- as are
drug use, domestic violence, depression, incest, etc-I
am dubious of the intent of using film as a medium for
launching this dialogue. The principles that must
engage this issue will probably never see the film, so
the net result is that the non-Orthodox Jew or gentile
will have even more a reason to hate us! Which we
From Ettah M.
dear sir... ( i can't think of any other way to address this.... its been a long week)
you asked a question.... how could g-d call homosexuallity an abomination and then turn around and create children that are homosexualls....
i think i may have something of an answer for you.....
in the torah (to my knowledge) g-d only forbids those things that are automatic taavos.... like sins of the flesh... jealosy... etc.... now for Him to call homosexuallity an abamination would make one think that it is a very prevalant desire in many people... the desire to experiment and see what its like.... etc.... now some people may have a bigger desire than others, but i do not feel equiped to go into that ....
but also it is something that we need to understand.... for women to be lesbians is not abomidable but for men to be homosexuals is.... why is this?
well the mitzvah of procreation is given to the men... and men on men is hot and all but doesn't produce much children... so to me that would be the main reason... as for moral issues etc... that is something that each person must look at individually and consider for themselves.....
and thats all i have to say on that.... thanks
ettah m. (aka icewolf770)
From YM Tarshish
The news story came out of Borough Park in late summer 2003. Two missing teenage girls – missing for a few days while the Chasidic community deliberated and finally decided to alert the authorities. My immediate, almost instinctual reaction after hearing the sketchy details: They ran away from the small, dark, cloaked, bound, shaved, and skirted ghetto...You know how the story ends. Two girls in forbidden fashions with jobs and an apartment in Phoenix, Arizona. The quote from the teens, “we couldn’t live with those rules anymore."
-as I read these lines, two thoughts crossed my mind, 1) why haven't I heard this "news story" before, am I really that out of the loop, and 2) why doesn't the fact that this story is "news" suggest to the writer that it might just be an abberation, the "exception that proves the rule", as it suggested to me? Is it that the writer lacks my charedi yeshiva education, which has trained me to confront issues as critically and objectively as possible? Thankfully, the writer quickly answered my questions..."from my arrogant modern orthodox perch"... at least the writer readily admits that he considers things from an arrogant, one-sided, condescending viewpoint. Such journalistic candor is deserving of admiration. If only the N.Y.Times, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, etc. were equally honest about their anti-religious agenda.
From Tzvi Cohen
I can't comment on the merits of your review of this movie; I haven't seen it. But the review seems less of a review than a diatribe against Hassidic and orthodox Jewry, and i can comment on that. From the opening paragraphs,. you prepare the reader not for a review of a documentary, but a declaration of the evils of Orthodoxy, how "single minded, unnaturally traditional, unquestionably repressive, probably psychologically harmful, and arguably backward" it is. Come on now, don't mince words, tell us what you really think.
After critiquing the interviews, you tell the readers that they know "the ultra orthodox community can be stifling." We heard you the first time.
Your review closes by telling me that I am as aware as you are "how insular and curmudgeonly our traditional legal code system can be." On a Jewish website, geared towards Jewish people, you have nothing better to do that to verbally bash the religion, those who practice it, and the Torah itself! I beg to differ, Jordan, but I don't see God's Torah, as "insular and curmudgeonly."
...I suppose I could try and bring an argument against you; I've met plenty of very well adjusted ultra-orthodox families, the women in which don't feel repressed, and who do feel they are in a very healthy position, the men in which don't find modernity to be more desirable than ancient tradition. Furthermore, i suspect that the dissent that is found in Ultra-orthodox youth is in the minority, but we hear about it more because it captures our attention, since they are so different and we seem to think they make an outward claim on Jewish Utopia; we find a perverse joy in expose the cracks therein. We need to be reminded that neither they, nor we, are perfect, far from it. But to each, his own.
However, my point is not to debate to you the merits of living the lifestyle of the ultra orthodox versus other spheres of orthodox, or any branch of Judaism, nor is it to discuss the problem of how to treat seriously challenging issues that arise within the various Jewish communities, such as, in this instance, homosexuality. Nor can I attempt to answer that lofty question of Why G-d would create such a tormenting scenario for anyone. My point is to say that using a movie review as a vehicle for your personal venomous lambasting of the ultra orthodox is inappropriate, nor is it appropriate in any venue to pass judgement on an entire sect of Judaism on the basis of a series of anecdotes and personal perceptions that support your claim.
From Dede Jacobs
Hey, my name's DeDe Jacobs. I wanted to thank you so much for your
insightful review of "Trembling Before G-d." I've heard a lot about this
movie and have been dying to see it, but it's not available for rent
anywhere, do you have any idea how I can get my hands on a copy? Thanks so much, DeDe