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“A Shapeshifter in Constant Motion”: Sandi DuBowski Spent 21 Years Filming ‘Sabbath Queen’

By Lauren Wissot

Image for 'Sabbath Queen' featuring people dressed in drag. Courtesy of Sandi DuBowski

Film still from Sabbath Queen. Courtesy of Sandi DuBowski

It’s been 23 years since Sandi DuBowski’s groundbreaking Trembling Before G-d, which uncloaked the lives of Hasidic and Orthodox gays and lesbians, made its Sundance debut. Since that time DuBowski has built a career at the intersection of religion and queerness, social activism and filmmaking, always avoiding the binary choice in favor of the “and.” This insistence is a bond shared by the director-producer and the riveting Israeli-American star of his latest feature Sabbath Queen—a doc over 21 years in the making focused squarely on Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, a descendant of 38 generations of Orthodox rabbis. This member of rabbi royalty is also the creator of drag persona Rebbetzin Hadassah, the founder of Jewish congregation Lab/Shul, and a queer dad to three young kids. And also a Jewish Theological Seminary-trained Conservative rabbi with a loving family entangled in a heartbreaking war back home.

In other words, it’s complicated. Which is why Documentary decided to reach out to the veteran activist-filmmaker to learn all about his Tribeca-premiering Sabbath Queen, the film’s unconventional lead, and embracing the messy nonbinary nature of humankind itself. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: Could you talk a bit about the lengthy (two decades-plus) production process? How did you first meet Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie? When did you begin filming his journey? How did you know when to stop?

SANDI DUBOWSKI: The journey to create Sabbath Queen was a two-decade rollercoaster of emotion, intensity, deep relationship-building, tears, and a lot of joys and oys.

I met Amichai in the late 1990’s. I was looking for people to be in Trembling Before G-d. Everyone said, “You need to speak to the nephew of the Chief Rabbi of Israel, he’s from 38 generations of rabbis, he’s gay.” I met Amichai, we talked, and I asked him to be in the film. He said his story did not fit Trembling, which was so much about the struggle to belong to Orthodoxy.

Amichai could trace his rabbinic dynasty back 1,000 years. He was basically from the Kennedys of Judaism. He was much more interested in reimagining a post-denominational Judaism that was rooted in tradition but way outside the box; something wilder, more imaginative, not ruled by patriarchy and supremacy and a commanding God. We often jokingly say that Amichai said, “I want my own movie. I don't do collage.” We became dear friends and, years later, I began filming. 

I thought I would end the film when Amichai was ordained as a rabbi. At that point, I had filmed for 13 years. But then it became clear that it was less about him achieving a title, and more about the tests he would face and what he would do with that title that would be even more powerful. Amichai had to make a moral and consequential choice, between two things that could be considered right, and then face the consequences. Once he did that, Act 3 fell into place.

D: The doc shifts back and forth in time, sometimes quite abruptly—which actually parallels Amichai’s own very nonlinear life. He too shifts back and forth, forever questioning whether he’s chosen the right path. So how did you go about shaping the film in post? Were you simultaneously editing throughout production?

SD: When we began the film, Amichai did not desire to become a rabbi. He kept saying, “Artists are the new rabbis.” But Amichai is a shapeshifter in constant motion, and he surprised everybody when he applied to enter seminary. 

We had 1800 hours of footage and 1100 hours of archival material and photos. In the edit room, we struggled to find the narrative throughline over these 21 years of shooting, some spine that would knit the disparate elements of Amichai’s life together: his Orthodox birth family, being a queer bio-dad to three kids with two lesbians; his “everybody-friendly, God-optional, artist-driven pop-up” Lab/Shul; his ritual theater company Storahtelling; his ex-love Pie; the Orthodox opposition; his Hasidic rabbi’s wife drag character Rebbetzin Hadassah and the Radical Faeries; his training to become a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary; the struggle around interfaith marriage which is banned by the Conservative Movement; Israel/Palestine and activism.

We were editing in the ancient past, present, and future all at once. It required years of enormous Talmudic debate, deep immersion into urgent Jewish questions of survival and right-wing extremism, ritual reimagining, and examining the political ramifications of every word, image, and scene. It was a minefield and very sensitive and delicate.

D: The push and pull of inclusion versus dilution is a primary theme in this film—i.e., if Judaism can be anything then it’s nothing. But this idea could apply to any religion and any ideology. There’s Amichai’s “everybody-friendly, God-optional, artist-driven, pop-up experimental” Lab/Shul, which appeals to the left; but on the right, we’ve also got Christian evangelicals who have basically decided that political rallies can just be the new church. So do you have any insights into this “how far is too far” aspect? Anything you gleaned throughout the making of the film?

SD: I am very proud of Amichai’s brother, Rabbi Benny Lau, a prominent Orthodox rabbi who agreed to be part of the film and who gave it a narrative spine and its opposition. There is political and ideological disagreement between the brothers, but they're in conversation and there's so much love and respect, even with their differences. In this toxic, polarized time, we hope that will be inspiring for many people. Many of us now are dealing with serious disagreements in our families, friendships, and communities, and Rabbi Amichai and Rabbi Benny are role models about how to stay in complicated and charged conversation.

Amichai is someone who feels a visceral and fierce sense of injustice and moral outrage when he sees wrong, and he speaks out from his heart and from his gut. Especially when patriarchy wields power. But there is a moment in the film after Amichai makes a historic choice that causes him to pay a price. He gets quiet and reflective and responds, “I think I'm doing the right thing. Sometimes I'm not sure. Only time will tell. 100 years from now, maybe, we will look back and know if this was a choice that validates continuity or just responds to this moment and disrupts continuity too radically. I don't know. We won't know.”

I find this moment of humility quite an extraordinary moment in the film. There is something when a leader can urgently advocate for change, and simultaneously acknowledge human and divine mystery, and realize our tiny place in it all. Amichai holds the tension of his brother and the 38 generations of his Orthodox rabbinic ancestors standing on his shoulders. He is in dialogue with his progressive self and his traditional forebears in his waking hours and in his dreams. But this is a span of 1000 years, a chain of argument between rabbis over the generations, and who knows what they would say if he were able to talk and debate with them? That is at the heart of Judaism, which is different than Evangelical Christianity—baked into the core of our tradition is debate and argument and even multiple truths.

D: Since your entire career has been devoted to the intersection of queer folks with their religion, I wonder if there are still particular angles or stories you’re keen to explore on film. Are you currently more focused on your social activist work offscreen?

SD: After a 21-year project, I am really excited to make a short! I have also been researching another surprising and wild nonfiction-ish/genre-blending project.

Sabbath Queen has so much potential to create change. We are raising a large impact budget to launch a global campaign with the film over the next two years, and we are in conversation with potential distribution partners who are excited to work with a filmmaker who knows their audience, how to reach them, and is ready to work one thousand percent. The documentary world is struggling with a funding and distribution crisis. I am going back to our super-resourceful roots, when in the early-mid 2000’s we turned Trembling Before G-d from a movie into a movement and made it a commercial, powerful, impactful success. I spent 21 years making this work I deeply believe in, and I am going to ensure the world will see it.

D: So how do you and Amichai feel about the film being out in the world now, especially with the far-right Israeli government currently bombing Gaza? Are you hopeful or worried about how the doc will be received?

SD: There are so many people right now who are longing for a story like this one. Amichai is a binary-breaker. Throughout the film, he upends binaries—from gender to Jews and non-Jews to Jewish law—trying to make it all more inclusive and insisting on reclaiming the oldest and often-discarded Jewish value of pluralism and complexities handled with care, no matter what. 

He is both/and vs. either/or. This moment in time is very polarized and emotional. Some people are being pulled to the extremes on this issue and one-sided empathy of you're either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, you either call for hostage release or you call for ceasefire. Amichai is about breaking those binaries and saying you can be both/and. His moral and Jewish values call for a ceasefire, a hostage deal, an end to the war and the Occupation, and a permanent peace for Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. There are challenges with releasing the film in this polarized global reality; but there is also a deep hunger for voices like Amichai’s who refuse hatred, violence, and dehumanization, and insist on a vision of shared futures.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She also writes regularly for Modern Times Review (The European Documentary Magazine), and has served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.