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flick pick | Trembling Before G-d 2001
Directed by: Sandi Simcha Dubowski
Language: English, Hebrew, Yiddish
Look for it at the video store under: documentary
Watch it when you’re in the mood for something: serious, true?!?
The critic says: ½/ 5 the rating system explained
Fun factor: /5 

Plot synopsis "How can you be gay and Orthodox at the same time?" wonders Israel, a 56-year-old gay, formerly-Orthodox Jew, in Sandi Simcha Dubowski's Trembling Before G-d. The people profiled in Dubowski's documentary struggle to find a way. As the film introduces us to a host of gay and lesbian Hasidic and Orthodox Jews living in cities around the world, we learn about the particularly difficult issues that a gay or lesbian person faces when they don't want to give up a faith that they truly love, even when that faith condemns who they are. There's David in Los Angeles, who has spent the last couple decades of his life futilely trying to follow his rabbi's advice to become straight, and remains anguished that a religion that he loves so much refuses to love him in return; on the other side of the globe in Israel are ultra-Orthodox lesbian Devorah -- wife, mother and grandmother -- and Mark, an HIV-positive young Londoner who, after getting kicked out of yeshiva after yeshiva, has returned to the Orthodox world that rejected him because he loves it so much. We also meet Malka and Leah, a lesbian Orthodox couple living in Florida who have been sweethearts since high school, and Michelle, a lesbian who grew up Hasidic in New York before leaving both her husband and her community once she came out. Along the way, Dubowski also interviews a slew of psychiatrists and rabbis - including the world's first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. The sum result is a revelatory examination of the intersection between religious fundamentalism, faith and sexuality.

Review It's hard for me to imagine what it's like to have a devout faith. I grew up in a godless household, and have spent the twenty-some odd years of my life quite happy in that state. I've had so little desire for religion in my own life that I've never understood why it means so much to so many others. So when I first started watching Trembling Before G-d, I found myself feeling totally alienated from each of the people the documentary features -- and not because they were gay, and I'm not. What mystified me was why anyone would continue to embrace a religion that insists that the way they love -- the way they are -- is somehow inherently wrong. The issue that intrigued me most in Dubowski's sensitive, thought-provoking documentary was not sexuality, but faith. In popular media, we generally see religious conservatives throwing their ugly invectives at gay and lesbians, all in the name of God; it's easy to hate those folks, who show so much hatred themselves. Trembling Before G-d doesn't boil anything down into such rigid black-and-white, good versus evil distinctions. When David tells his childhood rabbi that despite his best efforts, he cannot help but be gay, the rabbi expresses kindness, even as he remains adamant in his assertion that God cannot accept David's homosexuality. Dubowski's documentary is, in many ways, a celebration of faith -- the beauty of ritual, the traditions that unite people across generations, the struggle to understand humanity and the universe, the sense of ties that bind -- while at the same time, the film reveals the flaws in a religion that refuses to adapt to fit the needs of those who just want to be able to take part in it, and denies love to those who love it truly. Though the movie itself does not offer any easy answers on how to transform an ancient institution, the mere fact of the existence of Trembling Before G-d points the way towards how a solution might be crafted. In provoking thought and facilitating honest dialogue -- not the sort where each side yells at each other, but where a real effort is made to listen and understand -- empathy, love and acceptance just might be possible. —reviewed by Yee-Fan Sun

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