If religion is the opiate of the people, then fundamentalism is the purest heroin — which may explain why, in Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s new documentary about gay Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, nobody seems willing to kick. Instead they persevere, suffering in arranged marriages, alienated from their families and persisting in observing the tenants of a faith that insists that they be shunned (though not, in these enlightened times, stoned). The nonbeliever can only watch in puzzlement. Is this bravery or foolishness?
Whatever it is, it’s frustrating to watch these seemingly decent folk bang their heads against a wall that isn’t going to change or soften or in any way yield. One 40-ish man, David, was told 20 years ago by a rabbi he deeply respected that the only way to deal with his dilemma would be through counseling and abstinence. Now David, who lives in L.A., is traveling to Israel to reconsult with the learned man who, indeed, seems at first to be the embodiment of sympathetic humanism. David explains to him how the counseling was useless and frustrating. And the rabbi’s new advice? OK, forget the counseling and just concentrate on the abstinence.
And then there’s Michelle, a Hasidic lesbian in Brooklyn who walks through her old neighborhood like a ghost, afraid of running into some family member but drawn to the familiar surroundings. And 58-year-old Israel, who’s still suffering from the weight of his 98-year-old father’s disapproval.
Such craziness. And yet the cumulative effect of watching these various “case histories” is that what at first seems like obstinacy and a blinkered worldview starts to seem like an almost visionary approach to life, one where two seemingly irreconcilable elements — religion’s ancient devotion to tribal propagation and homosexuality — might be forged into some sort of conceptual breakthrough. But then you think ... naw.
Still, it’s a tribute to DuBowski’s film that one can begin watching it wondering why the people involved don’t just walk away from their religion and end up almost understanding.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].