Trembling Before G-d (2001)

I learned of this documentary many months before it eventually played in Austin as part of the Texas Documentary Tour — I bought the soundtrack.

John Zorn wrote the score for the film, and anything he writes becomes part of his Film Works series of albums. I may have even reviewed the CD before it screened in Austin.

I’d been curious about Trembling Before G-d for a while, but I didn’t get around to watching it till I took advantage of a 2-for-1 Tuesday at Vulcan Video. (I rented the NOVA special The Elegant Universe with it.)

One of the DVD extras is a featurette about the cross-faith reaction to the documentary. The struggle of resolving a gay identity with a religious identity resonated beyond gender and sexual politics. One viewer raved about the film and rattled off all the ways she wasn’t its target audience — one parent a Protestant, the other Catholic, her husband from another faith, etc..

All the while I watched the documentary, I thought to myself, “There should be a something like this for gay Christians in a fundamentalist community.” (In fact, the very end of the credits calls for gay Christians in the South to contact the filmmakers for such an endeavor.)

Personally, Trembling Before G-d struck a chord with me because my own coming out was hampered by what I considered spiritual ramifications. Sure, I thought my family would assume I’d be burning in hell for being a fag, and the thing was, I bought into that.

My choice was to leave religion behind. Organized religions, that is. I won’t dismiss the idea of spirituality completely, but I have to say — God must be smoking some pretty fucked up crack to let the people speaking for him keep their jobs.

For the people featured in Trembling Before G-d, religion is ingrained with their culture. The food they eat, the time they do work — it’s not separate from their every day lives. Praying at certain parts of the day is every part of their being as mine is to strum a guitar while watching Law and Order.

Their religious expression is not relegated to one day of the week.

But this same religious culture makes its gay members pariah. Judaism provides an important structure for the interviewees in the film, so it’s a source of anguish that this structure sets them up to fail.

The struggle is more important than the outcome, according to the religious authorities in the film. The work to obey the word of God has more meaning than being actually able to obey it. But for gay Orthodox Jews, it’s a struggle that will leave them lonely and isolated.

Trembling Before G-d conveys this sense wonderfully.

At times, subtitles appear when a speaker uses a term unfamiliar to secular audiences. You won’t say “Black Sabbath” the same again.

I’m not sure where the techincal break down occurs, but a number of scenes get distorted by horizontal lines — is it a digital camera problem or a DVD transfer problem? It might be distracting.

Some of the extras are pretty long-winded. However much I think the Rabbi Steve Greenberg is hot, I was barely able to sit through his 40 minutes of additional musings.

Still, it’s heartening to see the positive impact the film has on its community, as seen through the same featurette featuring the non-Jewish, non-gay fan.

Trembling Before G-d is a riveting work, emotional and thought-provoking. I’m hoping the Christian version reveals something similar.