Friday, June 21, 2024

“SABBATH QUEEN”

THE STORY – Filmed over 21 years, “Sabbath Queen” follows Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie’s journey as the heir of 38 generations of Orthodox rabbis who is torn between accepting his ancestral destiny or becoming a drag queen rebel. In addition to his drag persona, Lau-Lavie is a queer bio-dad and the founder of Lab/Shul: an everybody-friendly, God-optional, artist-driven, pop-up experimental congregation. With incredible access, award-winning director Sandi DuBowski (“Trembling Before G_D,” Sundance 2001) joins Rabbi Amichai on a life journey and cinematic quest to creatively and radically reinvent religion and ritual while challenging gender norms in a rapidly changing 21st century.

THE CAST – N/A

THE TEAM – Sandi DuBowski (Director/Writer), Francisco Bello & Jeremy Stulberg (Writers)

THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes


It may not seem like it at first, but Sandi DuBowski’s “Sabbath Queen” is the most vital documentary of the year. Filmed over two decades, the film follows Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, a descendant of thirty-eight generations of Orthodox Jewish rabbis, as he struggles to be true to both his status as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and his familial birthright. The sprawling story bounces back and forth in time as Amichai speaks on his upbringing in the Israeli Orthodox community and the new community of queer Jews he makes in the United States. 

His story is undeniably tough to watch as he wrestles with the religious beliefs he was taught to uphold and his lived experience of the world, desperately reaching for anything that will tie them together in a way that makes sense to him. It’s a touching arc; one that’s bolstered by his candor – both in his life and in the film’s interviews. That’s all well and good, but something special happens in the film’s last quarter that makes it required viewing not just for queer people, not just for Jews, but for everyone.

Throughout the film, DuBowski delves into the Lau family history in short spurts. Amichai’s father survived the Holocaust as a child, and both of his parents were among the first Israeli settlers. The specter of the Holocaust, of the six million dead, has long haunted the Jewish community, but the way the Lau family speaks of it is different. They do not speak of the losses their family suffered, they speak of the loss the Jewish people suffered as a whole. From the highest pulpits in the nation, we see them preach about the importance of bringing Jewish babies into the world, of strengthening the next generation. It’s completely understandable after having experienced a near-genocide, but then comes a scene of protests in 2014. A war has been raging in Gaza. 

Almost a decade before the October 7, 2023 attacks, and the response from Israel that will spark protests worldwide, Amichai attends a protest in New York City with a sign that questions the Israeli government and calls for a ceasefire. The barrage of hate-filled language hurled his way is astonishing, coming as it does from Jews towards another Jew, but the emotion in their voices isn’t anger, but fear. Fear that it will happen again, that another generation will be erased, that all the work put in to protect the world from another Holocaust has been in vain. And that’s when Amichai’s explanations about Orthodox beliefs and cultural practices come into stark relief: Orthodox Jews are giving birth at such a massive rate (especially in comparison to more liberal Jews, like those in the Reform movement) that in thirty years they will account for the vast majority of all Jews. They already hold a majority in Israel, hence the rise of Netanyahu and his hard-liners, as well as the strong-armed response to Oct 7th.

The next generation of Jews, at least in Israel, have been brought up as true believers, told the same things that Amichai was told as a young man: It is their job to ensure the continuation of the Jewish race, which means holding to the most literal readings of the Torah, marrying a Jew, and raising Jewish children who will do the same. In the film’s opening, Amichai’s brother Benny (an Orthodox rabbi) asks, “What does it mean to be a Jew? Where’s the boundary?” after commenting that the weddings he performs (traditional Jewish ceremonies between a man and a woman) are not like the weddings his brother performs, which may be between two men, two women, one Jew and one non-Jew, or any combination of the above. Benny offers the Orthodox perspective throughout the film, contextualizing what Amichai’s beliefs and decisions mean to the rest of his family. He speaks even-handedly but with conviction. Because he sounds reasonable, you want to believe that he is coming from a good place, but so many of the things he says come from a place of ignorance, caused by fear. While the film jumps around in time in a way that can be confusing, DuBowski smartly holds out on detailing Amichai’s current relationship with his family until the end, creating an air of tension around Benny in the best way.

The film also builds a significant air of tension around Amichai himself. Even as he finds his community among the subculture of the radical faeries, and builds an “everybody-friendly, God-optional, artist-driven, pop-up experimental congregation” called Lab/Shul, he can’t shake his Orthodox upbringing. The psychological toll that enrolling in the Jewish Theological Seminary (the rabbinical training grounds of the Conservative movement) takes on Amichai is palpable. While it gives him a deeper understanding of Jewish texts, it also reinforces some boundaries that directly conflict with the community he’s created. Watching him deal with the consequences of his actions – which stem from the unavoidable fact of him being who he is – in real time is gut-wrenching. He’s the best kind of documentary subject, and the film gains a lot from his ability to be completely open on camera.

“Sabbath Queen” undersells by presenting itself as the story of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who moonlights as a drag queen. Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross, Amichai’s alter ego, does make several memorable appearances in the film, but it’s not about his secret drag life. “Sabbath Queen” is about the state of modern Judaism, and how its different branches are struggling to maintain their faith and ensure a future for the Jewish people in the twenty-first century. The Orthodox and even Conservative movements believe that they must place guardrails on Judaism and that they must continue to preserve traditions as they were to ensure their survival. 

“Not everything that we’ve inherited is worthy of being passed on,” Amichai states, and he believes that Judaism’s inclusivity is the key to ensuring a long and fruitful future. This battle has been waged for decades, and now the world can see where it has led. But there is room for hope in the story of Amichai and his family. If a family this entrenched in Orthodoxy can see the light even a little, then maybe it’s not too late to save Judaism from itself.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - An incisive, dense exploration of modern Judaism with a compelling main subject.

THE BAD - The non-linear structure doesn’t help the film’s narrative. It's so dense with philosophical debate that it seems longer than it is.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>An incisive, dense exploration of modern Judaism with a compelling main subject.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The non-linear structure doesn’t help the film’s narrative. It's so dense with philosophical debate that it seems longer than it is.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"SABBATH QUEEN"