Life / Spirituality & religion

Queer-View Mirror: Still Trembling Before God?

Yesterday marked the Jewish holiday of Purim. Relatively unknown outside orthodox or conservative circles, it’s a holiday about the triumph of good over evil, the minority over the majority, the prey becoming victor.  Purim is a holiday where everything is turned on its head.

OK, they’re all like that.

But Purim was one of my favorites as a child, despite the hangings and massive killings, because we dressed up in costume, much like Halloween, which I was not allowed to celebrate. Men were encouraged to dress like women, and women like men. It was the one day a year I could comfortably don a Yankees uniform and actually be following the rules. Even in my small Orthodox town, Purim created a space in which limits were pushed a bit, when those outside the norm could gain access from the fringes. Perhaps the one Jewish holiday where I felt most myself, most integrated, as lesbian and Jew.

As I celebrated yesterday with a big meal at my brother and sister-in-law’s house with nieces and nephews and extended family, I thought about how far my family has come, and how far I have come in my own comfort level with being those two things simultaneously: Jewish and gay.

Credit: Sandi Simcha Dubowski


It reminded me of a documentary film that aired 13 years ago, Hardenberg Trembling Before G-d, made by director Sandi Simcha Dubowsky. Trembling, a Sundance Grand Jury nominee and winner of Outstanding Documentary at the 2003 GLAAD Media Awards, was truly a groundbreaking film. Dubowski managed to break through stony walls of silence in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox community, giving voice to the pain of those who desperately wanted to preserve their faith—felt they couldn’t live without it—but couldn’t escape who they are and who they love, or want to love.

I knew Sandi from my Orthodox circles and my time at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York. He had asked me if I might possibly consider being in the film—but I was too terrified of telling my story about a nice, queer, Jewish girl from Monsey. What would it do to my father? I was was not yet out to my parents and was far from reconciling my own faith with my sexuality. When I saw the film later, I remember feeling sad—incredibly sad both about what I had lost when I gave up my Orthodoxy, and what these people, most speaking in silhouette or with voice distortion, were losing through their own fear and self-loathing. The pain, the loneliness, in the film is so palpable.



There is David, an Orthodox Jew who resorted to various forms of painful behavior modification, unsuccessfully, lamenting that he can never have children. “Malka” and “Leah,” a couple, are filmed only with their mouths showing, their eyes cut out of the frame, so they can’t be identified. Michelle was pressured by her Hasidic community into marrying a man, and then ostracized after divorcing. She expresses her sadness over no longer having a place in her community. “I have yet to meet a chassidic woman who is a lesbian,” she says. “I think I am probably the only one.”

Watching the film again today, I realized much has changed. Today, many more members of the Orthodox community have come out. And many more rabbis from the Orthodox community have been willing to openly voice moderate, compassionate opinions for gay Jews.

This past year, the leading American Orthodox rabbinic organization, the Rabbinical Council of America, rejected reparative therapy. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, urged the Orthodox world to rise above its feelings of aversion and soften its “aggressive” attitude towards gays and lesbians. A young Orthodox rabbi, Shmuly Yanklowitz, publicly identified himself as an LGBT ally. And Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Los Angeles wrote in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, “[The Orthodox] community is acknowledging that homosexuality may very well be simply part of the human condition. Accordingly, we have decided that homosexuals should not any longer have to pay the psychological, emotional and even physical price for our theological comfort.”



These statements were certainly not being made in the ’90s or the ’00s. That gives me a lot of hope. At the same time, watching these men and women mourning the loss of their childhoods, their families, their worlds—it’s clear there is so much still left to do today. Too many clergy, whether Orthodox Jewish, Southern Baptist, Catholic, are still more than happy to wield God as a weapon, to condemn and malign the LGBT community, and ostracize members who identify as queer. We are losing too many children to suicide because of them.

The pain in Trembling is still quite real and legitimate for many.

That said, I have to acknowledge one major thing that has changed from 2001 to 2014: I can write about this today, without fear or dread. That is truly something. In itself, at least to me, it is as great a miracle as Queen Esther saving the Jewish people of Persia from destruction some 2,500 years ago.





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