Trembling Before G-d
by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2003-02-24
Characters from the documentary
A film which dares to tackle issues previously swept under the carpet by the Jewish community, Trembling Before G-d is a compelling, powerful and surprisingly funny piece of work. Director Sandi Simcha DuBowski spent seven years making the film, which tells the stories of Orthodox men and women whose lives have been affected by their coming out, or attempts at coming out.
These characters have eclectic, colourful and tragic stories to tell, from Israel, the New Yorker who makes a living with his Jewish 'Big Knish Tours' of the Orthodox areas of New York, to Mark, the British rabbi's son who is HIV positive, and whose sexuality saw him thrown out of numerous yeshivas.
Mark's penchant for dressing up in drag is quite at odds with his profound religious beliefs and indeed, his deep understanding of Judaism and being able to want to remain part of the Orthodox community.
Israel, meanwhile, is desperate to get back in touch with his family who have cast him out for 30 years - his phone call to his Orthodox father, who claims he is too busy to visit, is both sad and bizarrely funny as the 98-year-old makes up a string of excuses for not seeing his son, ranging from having to get up at 4.30 in the morning to pray, through to having to cook for Yom Tov.
The women featured include Michelle, a resident of the Orthodox Boro Park area, who despite getting married quickly realised life with her husband was not meant to be. She has little contact with her family, although one scene does feature her meeting an uncle in the street. Even though she has come out, she is still very nervous of what the community may be thinking of her.
The characters' individual stories are interspersed with commentary from a number of rabbis, including Steve Greenberg, who proclaims himself the world 's first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. People like Greenberg, Mark, Michelle and others don't want to dilute their commitment to Judaism by following less religious Jewish lifestyles, they wish to remain part of the community and follow the traditional paths, albeit not having a wedding or children.
As well as revealing an aspect of Judaism that has never been explored in such depth before, the film also provides some fascinating glimpses of the Orthodox Jewish world - one compelling scene shows the countdown to Shabbat in Boro Park, which was marked by the sounding of a siren, similar to the sound that London became all too familiar with during the Blitz. Various peripheral characters who interact with the film's main players provide some comic relief, especially the Orthodox man who reacts to Israel's stories of the hell he has been through since coming out, by offering him some cake. When discovering that Israel wants to be in a movie, revealed he could act like Al Pacino.
Sandi Simcha DuBowski has created one of the most striking and original looks at Jewish life in the last few years. The film has won many awards from various film festivals around the world, and it's easy to see why. It's gripping viewing from start to finish, and while the subject matter may be controversial, it is handled in a sincere and sensitive way. This is a film that everybody should see.