To Be Gay And Orthodox

That's the duality filmaker Sandi Simcha DuBowski explores in his film and in forums across the country.

February 02, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The inspiration for filmmaker Sandi Simcha DuBowski's documentary Trembling Before G-d came from an unlikely source: a former yeshiva student turned drag queen.

Seven years ago, DuBowski met Mark, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, at the International Conference of Gay and Lesbian Jews. DuBowski accompanied Mark, then angry and estranged from the faith of his youth, on a kind of pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

He filmed Mark as he met with Orthodox and Hasidic rabbis and visited the yeshivas he once loved. Mark's rediscovery of the Hasidic tradition despite its rejection of his lifestyle so moved DuBowski.

Mark eventually returned to the faith and is now studying to be a rabbi. DuBowski went on to make a film, chronicling the lives and struggles of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, and his personal endeavor evolved into a public cause.

His goal? "To alleviate pain," he says. "That's the simple answer."

To that end DuBowski is traveling the country, wherever the film is showing, holding discussions, dialogues and other events to hash out the controversial question: Is it possible to be an Orthodox Jew and to live as a homosexual?

For Orthodox Jews, the Torah prohibition against homosexual acts is clear and unyielding, based on a citation from the Book of Leviticus. DuBowski uses that quote to open the film: "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."

Homosexuality per se is not prohibited, but homosexual acts are, and Trembling Before G-d shows rabbis encouraging gays and lesbians to struggle to overcome their sexual urges. (Orthodox Jews do not pronounce or write out the name of the deity.)

For a largely hidden number of gay men and lesbian women, who either grew up in the Orthodox community or were attracted to its history, tradition and ritual, the religious pull is irresistible. They therefore strive to be a part of a community that calls their lifestyle an abomination.

"That says something beautiful and powerful about Jewish tradition, that people don't want to leave," says DuBowski, a gay man who grew up as a nominally religious Conservative Jew in Brooklyn, N.Y., but whose faith deepened as he made the film.

As a child, his family didn't gather for the weekly Sabbath ritual. Now, he is Sabbath observant. He doesn't identify himself as Orthodox - "it's very hard to live in that life as a single person, never mind being gay," he says. But he draws spiritual inspiration from Orthodoxy, which offers him a deeply satisfying religious experience.

"It satisfies, for me, the mind, heart and soul," he says.

In his quest to foster dialogue around the issues raised in Trembling Before G-d, DuBowski has sat down with Mormons in Utah when the Sundance Festival screened the film last year. He arranged a gathering with gay African-American Christians in New York. DuBowski is preparing to embark on a tour of evangelical seminaries in the South, all in an effort to preach tolerance in religions with strict moral codes. "For people who grew up in any strict faith, who have felt outside, felt alone, the film touches that place," he says.

And he has attempted to engage the Orthodox community wherever he goes. He'll take the film to a synagogue, if invited, and says he is even willing to screen it in private homes if that's the only way Orthodox Jews will see it.

Earlier this week, DuBowski was in Baltimore, where the film is showing at the Charles Theatre through Friday. After a screening, he appeared on a panel with one of the few Orthodox rabbis who would share the dais with him.

Rabbi Elan Adler of the Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah-Liberty Jewish Center, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Greenspring, was gracious and compassionate, but held firm to his interpretation of the Torah.

"If you wish to be called Orthodox but you desecrate the Sabbath or violate the laws of being kosher, then you are, by definition, not Orthodox," he says. "Sure, I can, out of sympathy, call you Orthodox, but no one else will. Similarly, you cannot proclaim a gay lifestyle and expect to be called Orthodox."

Sublimate homosexuality

While Adler says the Orthodox community should sympathize with the personal and emotional struggles of gays and lesbians, "I personally don't believe gays and lesbians are stuck in their particular orientation." That view is shared by several rabbis in the film, who encouraged those who sought spiritual advice to sublimate their homosexual urges.

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