Agony of being Jewish and gay

Film

January 25, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Trembling Before G-d, a documentary opening today at the Charles Theatre, pulls off an extraordinary feat.

It starts with a quote from Leviticus saying "A man who lies with a man as one lies with a woman, they have both done an abomination: they shall be put to death, their blood is on them." (It's followed by a quote from the code of Jewish law that forbids women "to rub against each other in the position of sexual intercourse" and prescribes whippings as punishment.) And the movie evokes intense sympathy for the plight of gay Jews who cleave to the Orthodox branch of the religion though its leaders deny their right to be gay and Jewish. Yet it celebrates the virtues of Orthodox Jewry's strict, intricate rituals and ethics and often joyous communality.

The director, Sandi Simcha Dubowski, is both politically engaged and eclectic. He honors the split commitment of Orthodox gays. He also salutes the struggle of those who felt they had to break away. His subjects - British, American, Israeli, male and female - are a succession of heartbreakers and rueful comedians.

Dubowski draws in the audience with his bold approach to his subject. At the beginning, he interviews an Israeli therapist who treated a depressed Orthodox housewife with 12 kids and a gay husband, a schoolteacher who had spoken about but never acted on his homosexual yearnings. She considered her spouse a saint for thwarting them. And the therapist, rather than arguing in the politically correct manner for everyone to be open, honest, loving and forgiving, tells Dubowski that he considers this man's constant wrestling with his urges to be the proper goal in life for an Orthodox gay person.

You can see his point. The sacrifice and discipline of this man are heroic - especially for viewers who don't share his agony and have the distance to view his personal narrative as a literary saga. But then Dubowski brings you close to Jews who defiantly proclaim themselves Orthodox and gay - or who have come to the realization that they can't be both. Their stories are so full of anguish and black comedy that they obliterate any distance between the interviewees and the audience, even when they're shot in shadows or from odd angles to protect their identities.

The most prominent subjects include David, a cantor's son, who was once told to suppress his homosexuality through prayers, eating figs and plunking a rubber band on his wrist every time he saw an attractive man. He is walking testimony to sexual preference not being a matter of choice, as well as a moving example of a man trying to be wholly responsible to his family, his religion - and himself.

And there are "Malka" and "Leah" (the names are pseudonyms), a lesbian couple who are as devoted to Orthodox rituals and ideals of selflessness and good deeds as they are to each other, yet still suffer the insult of dutiful "Good Sabbath" calls: the perfunctory greetings a father and mother make to salve their own guilty consciences.

Mark is an exuberant soul who was sent from London to Israel in his family's hilariously mistaken belief that there were no gays in Israel. That's where he came out.

Now he shares his happiness at his return to the Orthodox fold after a period of apostasy. He's HIV-positive, yet he's astoundingly affirmative in his attitudes: his flesh may be weak, but his spirit is ecstatic. And an older man named Israel is perhaps the most impressive of all. He's accepted that it is impossible to be Orthodox and homosexual, yet he can't get over the absurdity of it and works out his bone-deep bitterness in tours of his old Hasidic neighborhoods.

Dubowski's spiritual spokesman is Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, who argues that pronouncements like those in Leviticus are not definitive and that the Jewish deity throughout the Torah is constantly renegotiating his covenant with man and wondering, "Why didn't I think of that?" Dubowski's movie is an act of hope that the basic human needs of the gay Orthodox will someday be reconciled with their faith. Sun score: *** 1/2

Also at the Charles

Mildred Pierce screens at noon on Saturday as part of the Charles' continuing matinee revival series. It may be only the third-best James M. Cain adaptation, after Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. But as James Agee wrote when it opened in 1945, this tale of an all-too-devoted mother who rises from waitress to restaurant manager - and then competes with her spoiled daughter for her second husband's affections - "shows a constant, virulent, lambent attention to money and its effects, and more suggestions of sex than one hopes to see in American films. Excellent work by Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, and a little girl whose name I can't find who is as good an embodiment of all that is most terrifying about native contemporary adolescence as I ever hope to see."

He's referring to17-year-old Ann Blyth. Admission is $5

Cinema Sundays

Cinema Sundays will give film buffs a chance to continue the debate on whether Todd Solondz, auteur of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, is a sardonic artist or just a clever button-pusher when it screens Solondz's latest movie, Storytelling. The picture starts at 10:30 a.m. but the doors open at 9:45, leaving plenty of time for coffee, bagels and pre-screening argument. As usual, there will be discussion after the screening, too - this time led by Loren Glass of Towson University. Admission is $15.

Lang's `Metropolis'

Just as Fritz Lang's medieval epics Siegfried (1923) and Kriemhild's Revenge (1924) prefigured Lord of the Rings, his mad futuristic masterpiece Metropolis (1926) helped generate sci-fi fantasies from Things to Come (1936) and 2001 (1968) to an animated Japanese homage also called Metropolis (2001). Lang's Metropolis screens with organ accompaniment Sunday at 4 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Call 202-737-4215, or go to the Web site: www.nga.gov.

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