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‘Sabbath Queen’ Review: Awe-Inspiring Doc Examines the Life of a Radical Queer Rabbi

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What does it mean to be a Jew? Who gets to be a Jew? These are some of the most ancient questions in Jewish doctrine and also the underlying themes of Sandi DuBowski’s enthralling 100-minute documentary Sabbath Queen, which follows the evolution of Amichai Lau-Lavie, a drag queen and radically egalitarian performer in the New York Jewish community who chose to become a denominationally conservative rabbi later in life.

DuBowski, who helmed the groundbreaking queer Jewish nonfiction classic Trembling Before G-d (2001), about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews reconciling their opposing identities, does not fashion a hagiography of Lau-Lavie’s seemingly admirable life. If anything, he challenges him with thorny, perhaps unanswerable, questions and includes filmed conversations with Lau-Lavie’s friends and family, who push back against what they perceive as his egotism.  

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Sabbath Queen

The Bottom Line A fascinating portrait of a polarizing figure.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Director-writer: Sandi DuBowski
1 hour 43 minutes 

Ultimately, Sabbath Queen isn’t interested in the headline-grabbing macro conflicts that embroil Jews globally, but the internal culture wars within Judaism itself: fascistic fundamentalism versus reformist progressivism; dominant cishet masculinity versus burgeoning feminine and gender nonconforming voices; hallowed bloodlines versus chosen family. It is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

Combining crisp vérité recordings, emotional archival footage and confrontational talking head interviews, Sabbath Queen is a rich and intimate portrait of a person who stands for noble causes but sometimes baffles and even enrages the people closest to him. One of the strongest features of the film’s editing is how DuBowski continuously weaves Lau-Lavie’s brother’s painful criticisms of him throughout the narrative, constantly pinging the viewer from observing the subject’s impassioned missions to feeling the shame and rejection of his family due to these pursuits.

Lau-Lavie’s brother is, in fact, Binyamin “Benny” Lau, a revered Israeli rabbi who constantly reminds the audience that their religion is predicated on firm boundaries that Amichai is determined to break. Although he clearly loves his brother, Lau is unable to accommodate how Judaism could possibly thrive in permeable membranes.

The brilliance of the film is not just in DuBowski’s fascinating longitudinal chronicling of Lau-Lavie’s life’s work, but how the director delicately contextualizes his subject’s desired legacy by threading Lau-Lavie’s harrowing familial history into the narrative. Lau-Lavie, the scion of a prominent, conservative Ashkenazi-Israeli political and religious dynasty, fled his home country in his 20s after he was outed as gay in the press in the late 1990s. Upon landing in New York City, he embraced the restorative liberation of the era’s countercultural LGBTQ+ party subculture and eventually joined the Radical Faeries, a crunchy, irreverent and shamanistic secular spiritual movement that defined his approach to Judaism throughout the turn of the millennium. During that time, Lau-Lavie developed a septuagenarian Kabbalist Holocaust survivor rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) drag persona who incorporates sermonistic wisdom into her joke-telling.

This larger-than-life character is no random comical idea, but a sublimation of Lau-Lavie’s intergenerational trauma. In some of the film’s most engaging and effective sequences, we learn that he was born to a line of more than 40 consecutive generations of Eastern European rabbis. As a child, his dad, Naphtali Lau-Lavie, a lifelong Israeli civil servant and diplomat, saved his own younger brother from annihilation at Buchenwald after their rabbi father led his congregation into the gas chambers while chanting prayers for their peaceful deaths. The little boy Naphtali saved grew up to be Yisrael Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel and a worldwide religious leader. The two children were the only surviving members of their family.

For years, Amichai saw himself primarily as a subversive artist and performer whose goal was to transgress against the solemnity of synagogue and infuse showmanship into Jewish services to enliven stultified congregants. He befriended countless queer Jews who also felt left behind by conventional Judaism but were similarly not prepared to abandon the religion altogether. Eventually, he helped found Lab/Shul, a “god-optional, pop-up, experimental Jewish community” that has welcomed everything from interfaith marriage to blurred Jewish/non-Jewish everyday worshipping practices.

As depicted in the film, after donating his sperm to help two female friends conceive a brood of children, Lau-Lavie falls back into the good graces of his immediate loved ones, who see him as finally fulfilling the quality family-oriented Jewish life they had always wished for him. Eventually, he decides to chase his own rabbinical path by enrolling at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, which trains denominationally conservative Jewish clergy.

His friends are appalled; his family is offended. Neither side understands what he is seeking by becoming a member of the Jewish establishment. His progressive brethren, who already see him as an important leader in the Jewish community, accuse him — without saying it directly — of narcissism and the vanity of wanting a validating title. His family sees hypocrisy and philosophical contradictions in his endeavors, as though he is playing a game with their sacred beliefs. Even his institutional administrators condemn his commitment to overseeing interfaith weddings, which they view as the slow suffocation of their people. (To many Jews, a Jewish person who marries outside the faith is someone forever lost to the community, as their children are statistically less likely to follow Judaism. To Lau-Lavie, Jewish people in interfaith marriages will be more likely to remain connected to Judaism if their brand of Jewishness is accepted by others in the community.)

Why does Lau-Lavie pursue a rabbinical career? Because he wants to resist and ultimately dismantle the prejudices of conservative Judaism from the inside. Because he wants to meet his opponents on their own turf in order to defy growing strains of repressive traditionalism. “Not everything we have inherited is worthy of being passed on,” he declares. Sabbath Queen examines what’s more righteous: loyalty to what you’ve always known or loyalty to your core values?

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