There aren’t many low-budget documentaries that make a lasting contribution to the international vocabulary of a faith. Thanks to the unanticipated impact of Sandi Dubowski’s survey of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, however, whispers can now be heard in synagogues across the globe hinting that young Paul might be a bit of a trembler, or that Miriam has dabbled with trembling when her husband’s out of town. The success of the neologism adds weight to Dubowski’s argument that, prior to his film, homosexuality was a subject seldom-mentioned within Orthodox Jewry: the family is the centre of good living, and Leviticus isn’t very keen on sodomy, and consequently discussion of gay behaviour was minimal and overwhelmingly unsympathetic.
Trembling Before G-d makes it quite plain that, for its subjects, trying to reconcile non-heterosexuality with the Orthodox faith central to their upbringing is a psychological burden of terrific weight. Shooting over five years in Israel, London and a handful of American cities, one of Dubowski’s aims was to present such people as suffering human beings as well as suffering Jews, distinct from the abstract ‘in’with which they have felt themselves associated. In this he succeeds: Mark, excluded for his unwillingness to recant his sexuality, says: "I’ve been away from the Torah now for seven years and I feel like I’ve wasted seven years of my life,"; David, constantly on the brink of tears, was advised to eat dates and figs as a cure; Israel can’t talk on the subject for two minutes without working himself into harangue; and Malki is almost neurotically hesitant to walk through a playground in case she encounters a relative who might ask why she’s being filmed. And those are just the ones who can face the cameras.
The bonus material, especially the film-about-the-film Trembling on the Road shows the extraordinary extent to which the documentary has helped make the subject audible in international Jewish debate, and the generally positive effect of that sea change on the film’s subjects and those like them. There are encouraging statistics about the thousands of community leaders who have at least participated in the associated awareness-raising scheme, plus interviews with the creators and extra rabbi footage (and Tomboychik, a neat short about Dubowksi’s grandmother).
Trembling particularly benefits from the contextual abilities of DVD presentation, in that it is most profitably seen as merely the opening speech in an ongoing conversation. Viewed in isolation, the film is not without problems. Undoubtedly a powerful and groundbreaking insight into the experiences of a remarkable collection of individuals, it risks deteriorating into a bitty succession of case studies never satisfactorily located within a cohesive framework: the large number of contributors provides a broad spectrum of experiences but also proves fragmentary, working against any kind of narrative engagement. But then perhaps, in going about its business through anecdote and juxtaposition and leaving viewers to find the big picture for themselves, Trembling could be considered in the tradition of rabbinical teaching, or Jewish jokes.