Sabbath Queen: The life of a radical drag queen rabbi

6:11 pm on 8 July 2024
A still from the documentary Sabbath Queen. A street march featuring performers dancing and singing.

Sabbath Queen, directed by Sandi DuBowski, is playing as part of the DocEdge film festival. Photo: Supplied

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie comes from the "Kennedys of Judaism" a 38-generation unbroken line of rabbis, and he's also gay and a drag queen.

New York-based filmmaker Sandi DuBowski is the director of Sabbath Queen, about Lau-Lavie, which is screening in New Zealand for the DocEdge film festival.

The film was 21 years in the making, DuBowski told RNZ Nights.

"I did a film called Trembling Before God, which was about Hasidic and Orthodox Jews that are lesbian or gay. And I was in Jerusalem in the late '90s, looking for people to be in the film. And everyone kept saying, well, you know, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, his nephew's gay, you should meet him.

"So we met, and I asked him to be in the movie. And he refused. Because he's too much of a diva, and he wanted his own movie. And he told me, he said, 'I don't do collage'."

Nevertheless, the two became firm friends, he said.

"He's from like the Kennedys of Judaism, 38 generations of rabbis going back 1000 years. And he is the iconoclast, he's the rebel, he's the renegade. He was the one who questioned everything. And he certainly came out as queer. And he turned that into an incredible Rabbi's wife drag character."

Initially Lau-Lavie intended to turn his back on the rabbi tradition, DuBowski said.

"First he really rejected rabbi and said artists are the new rabbis. And then he said, you know what, I am going to step into my dynasty. But I'm going to do it in a completely new, radical way."

That radical way culminated in him establishing Lab/Shul synagogue.

"I think the only synagogue or church I know worldwide that deems itself God-optional. They call themselves Lab/Shul, which is a part laboratory, part synagogue. An everybody-friendly, God-optional, artist-driven, pop-up experimental congregation."

A line in the film that resonates with DuBowski is "not everything that we've inherited deserves to be passed on". Lau-Lavie embodies this idea, he said.

"Our traditions don't serve us for who we are now and who we want to be. And I think certainly on the level of gender and sexuality and queerness that's a big one. I think all over the world, we're dealing with patriarchy and how to serve, not just a fraction of this earth, but everybody, that everybody has freedom and dignity and agency.

"He's doing what many people are doing, who are innovators in many worlds. And he just happens to be doing it in the spiritual realm."

Over the course of the film's making profound social changes have happened, DuBowski said.

"When I began filming there wasn't marriage equality. I mean, we were not allowed to marry as gay and lesbian people. Fast forward Amichai officiated my queer interfaith wedding with my husband.

"And really gave me this real sense that I could reimagine the tradition for myself and for my set of identities that I share with my husband who's not Jewish. So that's just a amazing historical shift."

Sabbath Queen has screened all over the world, it's even heading for the deep south of the US, not exactly friendly territory , he said.

"I'm really curious, because one of our next screenings is in the deep south, completely in the Bible Belt, which actually makes me remember that, Amichai and his troupe of ritual storytellers used to do something called below the Bible Belt.

"I think that it's going to be really fascinating to take our below the Bible Belt film down to a red state, where they're banning drag, banning any care for transgender people, banning abortion, even banning IVF."

The film has lessons to teach faith communities, he said.

"There's so much globally that we need to do around this kind of Christian fundamentalism. So, I think Amichai, can really open doors, and maybe, as a rabbi, you know, actually open doors in a surprising and new way, for people."

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