Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation Sponsors Film at L.A.'s Outfest -- from the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation Sponsors Film at L.A.'s Outfest -- from the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

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Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The morning after they first make love, Noam and Ashraf -- the twentysomething romantic leads in "The Bubble," Eytan Fox's gay spin on the Romeo and Juliet story -- take in the sunrise over Tel Aviv from the roof of Noam's apartment building.

In an easygoing city where strife nonetheless lies just beneath the surface of everyday life, Fox suggests that even a sweet conversation backlit with the afterglow of sexual connection can quickly slide toward conflict. 

"You know why they have checkpoints," Noam (Ohad Knoller) challenges Ashraf (Yousef Sweid), who has just related the story of a Palestinian man who died of a heart attack because Israeli soldiers detained his ambulance. "The checkpoints weren't always there." 

"Spare me your propaganda," Ashraf replies. 

Their budding love for each other allows the two young men to reach a comfortable détente in fairly short order, but the heavy weight of politics in the region they inhabit means that a relationship between an Israeli and a Palestinian is almost certainly doomed in the long term. 

On the other hand, the fact that the two lovers are gay means that new possibilities may blossom from the well-tilled soil of an age-old story. 

"The Bubble" is one of two Israel-centered features scheduled for the 25th Outfest, Los Angeles' gay and lesbian film festival, July 12-23. The film is being shown in collaboration with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation, as well as JQ International. 

"Straight people in Israel have used gay culture in order to get out of the stagnant place Israeli society has reached," said Fox, whose resumé includes "Walk on Water" and "Yossi and Jagger." "People are so hungry for change." 

That heterosexual eagerness for a little gay tonic to take the edge off monotony is not so apparent in "Jerusalem Is Proud to Present." Local synagogues Beth Chayim Chadashim and Congregation Kol Ami are collaborating with the festival to show the documentary, which recounts the ill-fated gay pride march that was to have been the high point of the Holy City's hosting of World Pride events late last summer. 

"God will punish us if we allow this to happen," says an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi, who joins Muslim and Christian clerics at a news conference where leaders of the three faiths condemn plans for the march. 

"It felt like the other side of drag," said filmmaker Nitzan Gilady. "There were these men in their religious garb who would never sit together to share a meal, and certainly won't sit together to talk peace, getting together to talk about their hatred of the gay community." 

Still, like most of the gay activists captured in his film, Gilady said his purpose isn't to caricature religious Jerusalemites but rather to illustrate what's at stake when an unpopular minority tries to create a space where people with opposing points of view can coexist. 

"The struggle to hold the march isn't a fight against religion -- it's a fight for democracy," he said. 

But as both films show, having the chance to fight for democracy is itself a mark of privilege. For if exercising their right to hold a public march poses challenges for gay Israelis, their Palestinian counterparts have to contend with even tougher forms of cultural resistance. 

In "The Bubble," Ashraf faces both rejection and pressure to conform to the expectations of conservative family life after his sister and her fiancé discover that Ashraf's mysterious Israeli lover is a man. 

And one of the most affecting characters in Gilady's film is Boodi, a 20-year-old Palestinian drag performer who is forced to sever his ties with the friends he has made at Jerusalem's lone gay bar, after Hamas toughs threaten to kill him for being homosexual. 

In the dressing room where Boodi retreats at the end of his last performance at the bar, tears streak his cheeks as one of his fellow performers gently wipes the makeup from Boodi's face. 

That deft touch with deeply humanizing detail is the most satisfying point of connection between the two films. It's also the hallmark of artists who are able to illuminate big landscapes through the narratives of small stories. Both Gilady and Fox say that while the broader visions that inspire their work are basically optimistic, their outlook on life in contemporary Israel isn't always hopeful. 

"The scene in 'The Bubble,' when an angry woman confronts young people who are handing out fliers for a rave against the occupation, is almost a documentary of life in Tel Aviv," Fox said. "I remember having these arguments when I was in the Boy Scouts, and even then they called me a goody-goody or a peacenik. The angry woman screams, 'Why don't you ever change?' But she's the one who's not changing. These dynamics have been going on for 40 years." 

If anything, said Gilady, this entrenched resistance to compromise that would aid change has only deepened since global violence intensified in 2001. 

"Everyone accuses everyone else of being a terrorist," he said. "And that situation provides everyone cover for behavior that is unacceptable except in the name of religion." 

That assessment may sound despairing, but consider that gay artists have often used their "insider-outsider" status both to critique the cultural worlds they inhabit and to offer fresh perspectives on some of the most obdurate problems human beings face when they try to share turf with people who aren't like themselves. The semiapocalyptic ending of "The Bubble" nicely captures the possibilities that become apparent from this particular social location. 

"Maybe people will see how beautiful we look," Noam said, "and how stupid their wars are." 

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.