In his documentary Trembling Before G-d, Sandi Simcha Dubowski examines the soul-shattering torment suffered by gays and lesbians hoping to reconcile their sexuality with their Orthodox beliefs. Dubowski seemingly touches on every facet of this complex dilemma with a restraint that’s admirable. David, a gay man from California, comes face to face with the rabbi who suggested he seek aversive therapy to cure his homosexuality. The rabbi is relatively understanding of David’s natural urges but the conflict remains—according to the Talmud, homosexuality is wrong (and punishable by death). For David, he must become celibate or accept his passage into hell. His guilt is chillingly evoked when David tells the story of how his father said he should be thankful that he wasn’t made into a bar of soap. Psychotherapist Shlomo Ashkinazy’s interview suggests the problem lies in the sheltered nature of the religion itself; elder rabbis seem unfamiliar with the instinctual nature of sexuality, let alone the existence of such practices as oral sex and mutual masturbation. Even if the rabbis understand the nature of desire, their rigid dogma leaves little room for exceptions. If anti-gay hostility naturally comes with this kind of extreme religiosity then it is no wonder many gays in Israel have come to shun God. For Devorah, it should never be an issue of either/or—the homosexual should be able to love his God without needing to renounce his or her sexuality. A fierce Brooklyn man named Israel (think Bea Arthur with a penis—seriously folks!) hopes to reconnect with the 98-year-old father that once rejected him because of his sexuality. The man’s beliefs are so strong that he distanced himself from his son for an entire lifetime. AIDS and suicide are the tragic endgames for many of these conflicted men and women. Trembling Before G-d really has no answers to offer because, perhaps, there really aren’t any. Until archaic dogma entertains the possibility that sexuality is immutable, gays will continue to tremble before God.
Looks can be deceiving. Several years ago when I first saw Trembling Before G-d at New York City's Film Forum, it looked as if the documentary had been originally shot on film. Maybe I wasn't paying too close attention. There's nothing wrong per se with the video transfer available on this two-disc edition of the film (compression artifacts are nil; edge halos are non-intrusive; and colors and blacks, especially during the silhouettes sequences, are solid), except that it brings out the "videoness" of the original production. As for the sound, it's documentary-grade mono all the way.
Because Trembling Before G-d was such a huge hit, behold the meaty extras assembled for this two-disc edition of the film. The second disc starts off with an emotional 30-minute featurette titled "Trembling on the Road," which observes the global phenomena of the film and the controversies, discussions and reawakenings it provoked. This mini-doc is well thought-out and sometimes jarring, and because it features follow-up interviews with some of the people who appeared in the documentary (some are still in hiding from their families and themselves), "Trembling on the Road" works splendidly as a where-are-they-now continuation piece. Next up is Dubowski's strange but fascinating short Tomboychik, which features the director's grandmother complimenting her grandson on his girlish features before encouraging him to go drag. Dubowski eloquently explains the meaning of the dash in the film's title and how we wanted to honor the mystery of the divine throughout his narrative. And if you can't get enough of the documentary's conflicted Hasidic and Orthodox gays, also available are further interviews with the intelligent rabbi Steve Greenberg and five other controversial rabbis from the film. Rounding out the disc: Mark singing "Lev Tahor" ("Pure Heart"); a small piece on the Trembling Israeli Education Project; a conversation with Dubowski's editor and creative collaborator Susan Korda; a 1985 clip of Shlomo's appearance on "Donahue" (not listed on the back of the DVD); a deleted scene with Sara and her kids; a "holy" contextualization for the film's silhouettes; a fascinating discussion on how atonement ceremonies for sexual sins have reworked themselves over the ages; a theatrical trailer, glossary, international resources and links.
Few documentaries get released on DVD, let alone receive a two-disc edition. This one deserves the red carpet treatment.