A Gay Double Life
Here is a bit of news that I am anxious to share. Premiering at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, the new short LGBT film, “Black Hat” is a narrative drama about a seemingly pious Hasidic man who lives a secret double life. When he misplaces his black hat one night, his two separate lives to collide in a way he never imagined. Shmuel (Adam Silver) leads a simple yet religious life. Every day he goes to pray at the synagogue before going to work as a dry cleaner. When his wife and daughters leave town for a few days, Shmuel enters the more complex world at night.
“Black Hat” explores religion and queer identity through the experiences of this closeted Orthodox Jewish man. We often see religion as the antithesis of LGBTQ identity. We have had any number of LGBTQ films about Christianity and the ways it affects the gay community but we have not had much about the Jews. The film beautifully captures Shmuel’s struggle between his devout faith and queer identity. For him, as for many with the same struggle, he can’t choose one over the other because they’re equally engrained into his identity. So, Shmuel which means that during the day he prays and works and at night he visits gay bars looking for someone to share his live with.
Writer, co-producer, and gay Jewish man Phillip Guttmann shares some of the challenges ultra-Orthodox Jews face. There are groups of Orthodox Jews who remain out of the public eye yet deal with real issues, like substance addiction, untreated mental health, living in the closet — issues that everyone around the world faces — but in these religious insular communities, talking about such issues publicly is forbidden. He hopes that this film can help start those conversations around the intersectionality of Judaism and queer identities and raise awareness of the often-forgotten community.
Let me share a few words about ultra-Orthodox Jews. In an effort to survive near extinction 75 years ago, ultra- religious Jews, in their many different sects, created and continue to create large families and strictly private communities as a means to rebuild. In these communities, they follow God’s commandments as spelled out in the Torah and Talmud. Close-knit families look inward and find meaning in their traditions.
But in the contemporary world of today, modern problems impact even these ultra-insular communities. Every day, ultra-religious Jews face the same issues as people from the outside world: drug abuse, mental illness, questions about gender and sexual orientation, strained marriages and much more. But in the Hasidic code, such problems are forbidden and any displays of these problems is even more taboo. In Los Angeles, New York, Jerusalem, and everywhere that exist Hasidic Jews, real people hiding these painful struggles under their black hats and wigs.
Hasidic Jews are typically born into large, tight-knit families, just a few blocks away from the secular world, but a million miles away experientially. Children typically learn to speak Yiddish first and English second. Schools in these neighborhoods may provide some education but steer boys more towards the Talmud than mathematics or science. The bulk of these individuals’ entire worlds exist within a mile of their home.
Every year many Hasidic Jews try to escape: some flee, some overdose, and some turn to suicide as their only way out. Breaking away means starting over, learning completely foreign customs and traditions, and often times means losing entire support systems. Many who are desperate to leave never do because they simply don’t know how.
“Black Hat” looks at one such story from this community. We follow twenty-four hours in the life Shmuel’s story and we learn that these often mysterious and misunderstood religious individuals are perhaps more complex than is commonly believed.
This is a story about loneliness and the feeling of being trapped between two worlds. The film ends on a hopeful note of understanding and connection when a Hasidic man who also harbors the same secret, returns Shmuel’s misplaced black hat. Ultimately, this is a character study of a man searching for his place in the world.
Below is a but of information about the ultra-religious Jews:
- Hasidism started in Galicia in the 18th century as a response to formal, stuffy Jewish liturgy of the time.
- Today it has faced near annihilation (mid 20th century) and fought to come back and survive with Hasidic families tending towards large families with an average of 8 children to re-grow.
- Over the years, Hasidism has split into dozens of sects that interpret the Torah and the Talmud differently and see issues like Israel’s existence or how to interact or not interact with non-Jewish communities, differently. Sects like the Satmer movement, believe that Israel cannot exist properly until the return of the Messiah and prefer as little contact with non-religious Jews as possible, while the Chabad movement recognizes Israel as the home of the Jewish nation and takes an outward approach, extending beyond their communities to spread the word of the Torah to non-believers.
- Hasidim, particularly Chabad, can be found in nearly every country and major city, though, tend towards smaller numbers. The largest communities of Hasidim can be found in Israel and New York City, and also have sizable communities in Paris, London, Montreal, Miami and Los Angeles.
- In 1933, the total world population of Jews was estimated at about 18 million. 85 years later in 2018, the total world population is estimated at about 15 million. That means that the deficit of 6 million Jews created by the Holocaust is beginning to regrow. This can be in part attributed to the Haredi movement.
- Most Haredi Jews live in Israel in Haredi neighborhoods. The current total population of Haredi Jews in Israel is over 1 million (out of over 6 million Jews in Israel). In New York, the estimated Haredi population is over 90,000. And in Los Angeles, where our story takes place, there are close to 15,000 Haredi Jews.