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(The 2024 Tribeca Film Festival runs June 5-16, and as always, we have many boots on the ground. Check out Matt Delman’s Sabbath Queen movie review. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

Sandi Dubowski’s transformative documentary Sabbath Queen follows Amichai Lau-Lavie, an unforgettable protagonist, over 21 years–or almost twice as long as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. A New York Jew from Israel, Amichai has been an advocate for peace and protecting innocent Palestinian lives well before Instagram existed. Decades-old shaky footage shows Amichai at a protest on the receiving end of a barrage of violent insults for carrying a sign that reads, “Stand with Israel, Mourn with Gaza.” Amichai comes from a thousand-year lineage of Orthodox rabbis, and his brother Benny continues the tradition, while Amichai branches out into more liberal ways of thinking. This new philosophy manifests in Lab/Shul, a god-optional synagogue that enlivens biblical stories through song and theater. After a few years of feeling professionally and spiritually unfulfilled, Amichai enrolls in seminary to become an ordained Conservative rabbi. Throughout the film his relationship with Judaism evolves and we see the inescapable pull of the centuries old traditions weighing on him.

Oh, and he’s also a drag queen. Falling in with the Radical Faeries in the late 90s, Amichai adopts the comedy queen persona of Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross. Comedy is a great way of breaking down barriers, and seeing Mrs. Gross interacting with the public yields some much needed laughter. “Redemption will only come with transgression” says the Sabbath Queen. Indeed Amichai is prone to rule-breaking, as when he officiates the marriage of two men who are JewBus (Jewish Buddhists). His moral compass doesn’t always correspond with the Torah’s laws, but rules are meant to be challenged, especially when those rules have not been updated for thousands of years.

Dubowski, through his interviews, points out that within 30 years the majority of jews in the world will be Orthodox, because they have babies at a much higher rate than liberal jews. Over 21 years of footage, we practically watch Amichai’s brain working out an equation, in which he comes to the conclusion that the only way to bridge the religious divide is from the middle, which in this case is the ‘Conservative’ movement. His family, who remain Orthodox, are happy enough with his decision, and brother Benny even attends his graduation. However this is seen as a betrayal by some of his LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. Who is he really serving? 

When filming someone’s life it’s hard to know when you’re finished, but this year feels incredibly timely for a wide audience to hear the Sabbath Queen’s story. Amichai and Dubowski are onto something, mainly that not everything is black and white. While Amichai seems sure of himself in an individual scene, ambiguity oozes out of the final product. That complexity mixed with the timeliness of our geopolitical situation makes this documentary one to watch for awards season. There are echoes of Laura Poitras’ All The Beauty and the Bloodshed, in that Amichai like Nan Goldin turns family trauma into activism. Miraculously, and to the delight of his family, Amichai becomes a father through donating his sperm to a lesbian couple. The three of them decide to raise the kids together. Will his children become rabbis too and keep the lineage going? In this crazy world, we pray the next generation will save us from ourselves.

2024 Tribeca Film Festival; Sandi Dubowski; Sabbath Queen

– Matt Delman (@ItsTheRealDel)

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Matt Delman is the Editor-at-large for Hammer to Nail, spearheading the redesign and relaunch of the site in January 2020. Delman has been a frequent contributor since 2015, with boots on the ground at film festivals across North America. He also runs a boutique digital marketing agency, 3rd Impression, that specializes in social media advertising for independent film. He was recently featured in Filmmaker Magazine for his innovative digital strategies.

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