Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

movie review: Trembling Before G-d

I just finished watching a film that's about ten years old, Trembling Before G-d. It's an independent documentary film about the lives and struggles of gay and lesbian Orthodox and Hasidic Jews -- not a large-budget production, which possibly explains why they couldn't afford the extra vowel.

I found myself wondering if the film would be any different if it had been made today and not ten years ago. Have any of the cultural shifts and progress trickled through to the Orthodox and Hasidic communities when it comes to dealing with their gay sons and daughters and nephews and nieces and grandchildren and congregants? As the non-Orthodox Jewish community becomes more accepting, and as society at large becomes more matter-of-fact about gayness, does this have any effect on the Orthodox and Hasidic community, or has that simply strengthened their intransigence? I'd be curious to know more.

Also, there was one part where I had to fast forward in distaste. One of the most interesting individuals the film followed was a middle-aged Orthodox gay man who, in his youth, had gone through all sorts of (painfully literal) contortions in order to "change," to not be gay any longer. He had gone through interminable counseling, humiliating aversive rituals -- all sorts of really damaging stuff. But he seemed, in many ways, the film's most appealing, balanced, and articulate individual. Anyway, they had him fly back to meet with the rabbi that he first came out to as a young man, and who had first counseled him to seek therapy and a "cure." And all the while, he's talking about how kind this rabbi is, how gentle and understanding, how he's got sweet eyes, and when we meet him, you can really see it, too -- here is a gentle and kind older man. So I was appalled at the impulse to stand there with a camera and have the guy say, yeah, you remember that advice you gave me, IT SUCKED. I couldn't watch, and it seemed to me a violation of two very important Jewish principles: a) you never embarrass or publicly humiliate anyone, and b) you are grateful to any teachers you ever had, even if most of what they taught you was wrong and only one tiny kernel of it was true. There's a saying about being grateful to someone who taught you even the smallest letter of the aleph-bet. Even if you later realize that your teacher was wrong, or that you have "moved beyond" your teacher, you find something to be grateful for.

It was a film about intense personal suffering, but part of me rebels at it. It's easy to assume, watching films like this, that gayness is all about suffering, and there's a delicate psychological line there -- if gays suffer so much, a viewer might think, then maybe it means they should be suffering, that suffering is somehow an ontological part of gay existence. It's a bit like if you constructed your whole notion of Judaism from Schindler's List. Making endless films about Jewish suffering leads to the idea that Jewishness is all about suffering, which leads to the whole notion of divinely ordained, punitive Jewish suffering, which leads to, which leads to. So it's a thing: how do you document and bear witness to the oppression of a minority without letting consciousness of oppression dominate an outsider's understanding of minority identity? How do you lead outsiders into the secret treasury of joy that characterizes that experience?

So, I dunno. Anyone with more insight than I've got into the intersection of Jewishness and queerness should feel free to enlighten me.

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