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Saturday, 27 October, 2001, 04:20 GMT 05:20 UK
Film uncovers hidden world
By entertainment correspondent Tom Brook in New York

The normally hidden world of gay Hasidic and Orthodox Jews has been uncovered in Trembling Before God - a controversial documentary that has just opened at the US box office.

Many of the film's subjects appear in silhouette, with their voices disguised, because they feared repercussions if their identities were revealed.

People feel like if you cut off your spirituality to save your sexuality, it's as if you cut off your left arm to save your right

Sandi Simcha DuBowski
New York filmmaker, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, spent more than five years making Trembling Before God, shooting in the US, Israel and Britain. He felt people took incredible risks to be in his documentary.

As he explains: "A number of people are married and their husbands and wives don't even know that they are lesbian or gay, never mind that they are in a film. So, people are in silhouette because of the enormous risk people face in the community for coming out as lesbian or gay."

Visual style

Orthodox gays who do come out of the closet can find they are rejected by their families, expelled from synagogues and often forced to undergo controversial aversion therapy aimed at making them heterosexual.

Trembling Before God has won numerous festival awards in advance of its opening at the US box office. The visual style of the documentary is pedestrian suggesting that it's the film's unusual content, revealing a rarely seen deeply closeted world, that has made such an impression.

One of the men featured in the film is David, a 35-year-old Orthodox man living in Los Angeles, who recounts the efforts he has made over the years not to act on his homosexual feelings.

He describes how he recited prayers, flicked a rubber band on his wrist, bit his tongue and, on the advice of a rabbi, even ate figs to keep his sexual impulses under control.

Aversion therapy

The documentary follows him as he travels to meet the first person he ever told he was gay, a rabbi he knew 20 years ago.

At that time the rabbi advised him to seek aversion therapy in the belief that it would change his sexual orientation.

In the encounter the rabbi admits he loves David as a Jew but still cannot offer any endorsement of him as a gay man.

Instances such as these reveal the huge gulf between Orthodox rabbis and gays in their community.

Another sequence reveals a tormented "Devorah", the fictitious name given to an ultra-Orthodox lesbian living in Israel who's been married for almost 20 years.

Deeply troubled

Although she hasn't revealed her sexual orientation to her husband she is in anguish over the pain her secret inner life may have caused him.

She sounds deeply troubled, on the verge of breaking down.

Many of the film's subjects seem desperate in their struggle to integrate their sexual identity with their faith.

Although the Orthodox community can be extremely punitive to gays, DuBowski found that many of the people he interviewed for his documentary were determined to maintain a commitment to their religion.

'Integral parts'

He says: "There's a real beauty and richness and wisdom in the tradition, as I found when I met Hasidic and Orthodox gays and lesbians worldwide.

Trembling Before God portrays the anguish of several gay Orthodox individuals in quite some depth

Tom Brook
"People feel like if you cut off your spirituality to save your sexuality, it's as if you cut off your left arm to save your right These are both integral parts of people's being."

The film has been criticized by some Orthodox Jews who say the documentary fails to show that gays can be converted to heterosexuality freeing them to happily co-exist with their faith.

The filmmaker admits he doesn't buy this somewhat controversial argument.

He says: "There have been attacks on the film, with those attacks, there's an assumption that homosexuality is a mental illness and that everyone can be cured.


"What they try to argue is that there is such a thing as reparative therapy which means that people can go through this process and be cured.

"The American Psychiatric Association has said reparative therapy does not work and it's clear that there's a real battle right now in Orthodox mental health professional circles about whether homosexuality can be cured or not."

Although Trembling Before God portrays the anguish of several gay Orthodox individuals in quite some depth it doesn't give many examples of people who've successfully reconciled their sexuality with their faith.

It seems to be a struggle loaded with fear, confusion and uncertainty. The film covers a lot of ground but it doesn't explain why so many gay Orthodox Jews are so highly dependent on family, rabbinical figures and the religious establishment for acceptance.

What seems to matter to Sandi Simcha DuBowski is that he's made a film that has at least prompted the Orthodox community to discuss an issue it has long ignored.

He thinks his film has helped break the silence and helped to move Orthodox gays out of isolation.

As he puts it: "There's an immense amount of pain and suffering among Orthodox gays and lesbians and their families and rabbis and communities, and I really hope with this film to alleviate that pain, and to allow us space for people not to implode inside."

See also:

30 Mar 00 | Americas
US rabbis approve gay partnership
01 Aug 01 | Europe
Germany legalises gay marriage
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