Sabbath Queen: An Epic Cinematic Quest

June 5, 2024

In our latest blog post, filmmaker Sandi DuBowski shares his experience filming Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie over 21 years for his new feature documentary, Sabbath Queen, executive produced by Adrian Salpeter (all Reboot Network members). Supported with funding from Reboot Studios and premiering this month in the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival, the cinematic quest captures Amichai’s efforts to creatively and radically reinvent religion, ritual, and love for a challenging, rapidly changing 21st century. Amichai, the dynastic heir of 38 generations of Orthodox rabbis, rejected his traditional destiny and became a drag-queen rebel, a queer father, and the founder of Lab/Shul – an everybody-friendly, God-optional, artist-driven, pop-up experimental congregation in New York. He is also Sandi’s dear friend – and rabbi. Read more from Sandi below.

I just finished my film Sabbath Queen – after 21 years. It is as if I had a child and was standing at their college graduation. It is the gestation period of 11 elephant babies and a sperm whale combined!

The journey to create Sabbath Queen, a feature documentary on Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, was a two-decade roller-coaster of emotion, intensity, deep relationship-building, tears and a lot of joys and oy’s. I met Amichai in the late 1990s. I was looking for people to be in Trembling Before G-d, my film about Hasidic and Orthodox gays and lesbians. Everyone said, “You need to speak to the nephew of the Chief Rabbi of Israel, he’s from 38 generations of rabbis, he’s gay.” When we met, Amichai said his story did not fit the premise of the film, which was so much about the struggle to belong to Orthodoxy. Amichai could trace his rabbinic dynasty back 1,000 years. He was basically from the Kennedys of Judaism. He was much more interested in reimagining a post-denominational Judaism that was rooted in tradition but way outside the box; something wilder, more imaginative, not ruled by patriarchy and supremacy and a commanding God. We often jokingly say that Amichai said, “I want my own movie. I don’t do collage.” We became dear friends and years later, this joke became reality and I began filming. 

When we started the film, Amichai did not want to become a rabbi. He kept saying, “Artists are the new rabbis.” He had a real opposition to becoming a rabbi but really wrestled inside with it, given his history. Amichai is a shapeshifter. He is surprising. His life is a constant work in progress. He is deeply irreverent, but he takes everything incredibly seriously. He’s constantly interrogating and changing and questioning. So eventually, he decided to apply to seminary.

We had 1,800 hours of footage and 1,100 of hours of archival material and photos. In the edit room, we struggled to find the narrative thruline from these 21 years of shooting, some spine that would knit the disparate elements of Amichai’s life together – his Orthodox birth family, being a queer bio-dad to three kids with two lesbians, his everybody-friendly God optional artist-driven pop-up Lab/Shul, his ritual theater company Storahtelling, his ex-love Pie, the Orthodox opposition, his Hasidic rabbi’s wife drag character Rebbetzin Hadassah and the Radical Faeries, his training to become a conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the struggle around interfaith marriage which is banned by the Conservative Movement, Israel/Palestine and activism. 

We were editing in the ancient past, present and future all at once. It required years of enormous Talmudic debate, deep immersion into urgent Jewish questions of survival and right-wing extremism, ritual reimagining and examining the political ramifications of every word, image and scene. It was a minefield and very sensitive and delicate.   

I am very proud of Amichai’s brother, Rabbi Benny Lau, a prominent Orthodox rabbi who agreed to be part of the film and who gave it a narrative spine and its opposition. There is political and ideological disagreement between the brothers, but they’re in conversation and there’s so much love and respect, even with their differences. In this toxic, polarized time, we hope that will be inspiring for many people. Many of us now are dealing with serious disagreements in our families, in our friendships and communities and Rabbi Amichai and Rabbi Benny are role models about how to stay in complicated and charged conversation.

This 21-year journey had a profound effect on my life. By the time I finished Trembling Before G-d, I was much more drawn to Orthodoxy. I was inspired – Hasidic and Orthodox people were my portal into Jewish tradition, without the homophobia attached. But then I began to go on this path – religiously, spiritually, Jewish-ly – with Amichai. He helped me have a much more fluid relationship to the divine, and to set aside laws that felt punishing, dictating, or demanding. I became a co-creator of Lab/Shul, the artist-driven, everybody-friendly, God-optional pop-up synagogue. I felt inspired to remake the traditions of Judaism for my generation’s own needs in profound, justice-driven and also playful ways. Over the course of the filming, Amichai officiated my interfaith queer wedding and he buried my father. I was able to craft rituals of love, of death and of politics that were imbued with personal meaning.  

Amichai is my dear friend. He is my rabbi. He is the protagonist of my film. We have a very multi-layered, complex 25+ year relationship where we are constantly moving between these different modes. This process has given my life and the world of this film a deep richness and now we get to expand these circles of possibility of dialogue and healing and courageous conversation for the world with the release of Sabbath Queen

Now a new chapter of the work begins! 

Sabbath Queen captures director Sandi DuBowski and Amichai Lau-Lavie (both Reboot Network members) on a lifelong and cinematic quest to creatively and radically reinvent religion, ritual, and love for a challenging, rapidly changing 21st century. The feature documentary, supported with funding from Reboot Studios and executive produced by Reboot Network member Adrian Salpeter, has been included as an Official Selection of the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival! Filmed over 21 years, Sabbath Queen follows Rabbi Amichai Lau Lavie’s epic journey as the dynastic heir of 38 generations of Orthodox rabbis who rejects his traditional destiny and becomes a drag-queen rebel, a queer father, and the founder of Lab/Shul – an everybody-friendly, God-optional, artist-driven, pop-up experimental congregation in New York! 

Sandi DuBowski is the Director/Producer of SABBATH QUEEN, Director/Producer of TREMBLING BEFORE G-DProducer of A JIHAD FOR LOVE, and Co-Producer of BUDRUS. His award-winning work has screened at Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca and Toronto, theatrically released in 150 cities, and broadcast on ZDF/Arte, BBC, Channel 4, PBS. In 2020, he was invited to become a member of the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. DuBowski spearheaded a groundbreaking impact campaign with the award-winning TREMBLING BEFORE G-D, personally conducting 850 live events, for over 250,000 people, which changed the lives of countless individuals, their families, religious leaders, and communities around the world. Feature stories on the project appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, NPR, The Globe and Mail, and BBC News. From 2009-2016, DuBowski worked with over 125 of the world’s best social justice documentaries as the Outreach Director of Doc Society’s Good Pitch. He is Co-Founder of The Creative Resistance, a collective of media makers who create award-winning political ads and design. In the mid-1990’s he began his media and activism work at Planned Parenthood Federation of America focused on the Christian right and the anti-abortion movement. Three generations of DuBowski’s family made chocolate syrup in Deep Coastal Brooklyn.