DATE January 28, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Rabbi Steven Greenberg, Michelle Miller and Sandi
Dubowski discuss the role of gays and lesbians in the Jewish
community and the new documentary "Trembling Before G-d"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The new movie "Trembling Before G-d" is a documentary about gays and lesbians
who are Orthodox or Hasidic Jews. They would like to stay within their faith,
but those branches of Judaism prohibit homosexuality. Orthodox and Hasidic
Jews follow Jewish law, or halakhah, and most don't believe the law should be
adapted to suit contemporary times. There are strict rules that outline
My guests are Sandi Dubowski, the director of the film, Michelle Miller, a
lesbian from a Hasidic background, and Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first
openly gay Orthodox rabbi.
Here's a clip from the film that shows what these gays and lesbians are
confronting. One of the men interviewed in the film, David, went to Jerusalem
20 years ago to meet with a Hasidic rabbi he held in high regard. The rabbi
advised David to undergo a form of aversion therapy. For example, David was
supposed to wear a rubber band on his wrist, and every time he felt attracted
to a man, he was supposed to snap the rubber band. The rabbi also recommended
that David eat dates and figs. In the documentary "Trembling Before G-d,"
David returns to the rabbi who gave him that advice. Here's the rabbi talking
(Soundbite of "Trembling Before G-d")
Unidentified Actor #1: Are you still looking for ways...
Unidentified Actor #2 ("David"): To change?
Unidentified Actor #1: Yeah.
Unidentified Actor #2 ("David"): No.
Unidentified Actor #1: You aren't?
Unidentified Actor #2 ("David"): Because I don't think it's possible to have
sex with women. It's just inappropriate. It's like you having sex with men.
I can't do it. It's just not in me.
Unidentified Actor #1: Unfortunately, you have to go through the heartache of
being in this position, having these feelings and coming to grips with what
God has to say about it. To have sexual relationships with another man is
something that's a prohibition. I don't blame you for wanting to have
acceptance of something that's so much a part of your life and such an
emotional part of your being.
Unidentified Actor #2 ("David"): Do I live my life alone with no partner,
with no loving relationship? According to this halakhah, is that the right
way that I'm supposed to live my life?
Unidentified Actor #1: Well, I've been taught that we're not given anything
that can't have control over. It may not be easy sometimes.
Unidentified Actor #2 ("David"): You want me sublimating my homosexual
feelings to have sex with a woman? So how about how I tell you in the same
vein, can't you sublimate your feelings for women and channel them into
developing relationships with men?
Unidentified Actor #1: I sublimate my feelings for women every day.
Unidentified Actor #2 ("David"): Yeah, but you channel them with your wife.
You have that with your wife. What you're telling me is to put in the plug or
lock the door and throw away the key. What am I going to be, 95 years old and
saying, `To hell with meeting dates,' and doing somersaults and doing rubber
bands and holding my breath and studying Gomorrah until I can't--you know,
must I live a celibate halakhah existence by myself with friends? Is that my
lot? Is that what I'm supposed to have in this life?
GROSS: A clip from the documentary "Trembling Before G-d." Later in that
conversation, the rabbi tells David though although he feels that David should
be celibate, he doesn't know if he would recommend going back to aversion
therapy. Filmmaker Sandi Dubowski says therapy that tries to make homosexuals
change their nature can be very damaging.
Mr. SANDI DUBOWSKI (Director, "Trembling Before G-d"): David, for example,
pulled out of the film at least six or seven times, because he felt like this
was violating (foreign language spoken), which is honoring one's parents, that
by being in this film, he was shaming his family. And I think that that
partly was the legacy of the damage these therapies did, that it turned his
homosexuality into something that he was utterly ashamed of, and still
struggles, I think, to find self-acceptance.
GROSS: Rabbi Steven Greenberg, you've been described as the first out
Orthodox rabbi. Did you know you were gay when you became a rabbi?
Rabbi STEVEN GREENBERG: Oh, no. I might have had suspicions that I was--you
know, had some bisexual energy in me, but, you know, I always understood
myself as a straight person through that whole process.
GROSS: And when did you realize that that wasn't the case?
Rabbi GREENBERG: Well, part of the difficulty, you know, in general, in gay
identity, is that it's kind of a resisted creeping awareness that, you know,
initially doesn't have any language. And eventually, you know, you kind of
bang yourself against a reality that you deny and deny, and finally, you know,
you have to deal with it. I was in my mid-30s when finally I fully understood
that I was a gay person.
GROSS: Now what does your religion tell you about homosexuality?
Rabbi GREENBERG: Well, surprisingly, very little. The truth is that the
verses in Laviticus that are used by many people to mark the Bible's rejection
of homosexuality are, I think, misread. What's prohibited is intercourse
between men, but no relationship at all between women is mentioned, and other
relationships, other sexual engagements between men aren't mentioned at all.
So minimally speaking, the question is why would the Bible, the Torah,
prohibit intercourse between men? But fundamentally, that's one act and not
what we would call homosexuality. Were that to be the concern of the text,
then relations between women would also have been concerned. So the real
question is, you know, why is it that the text prohibits this one act,
homosexuality, the desire of the same sex? You know, that in itself appears
nowhere in the Hebrew Bible.
GROSS: But it sounds like you're unusual in interpreting the Jewish text that
way, that most of the Orthodox or Hasidic rabbis think that homosexuality goes
against the Jewish laws.
Rabbi GREENBERG: Well, desire is not prohibited. The first thing is an
interesting point, is that desire is not prohibited, certain actions are. And
once again, when you look at the actions, you realize, well, you know, only
intercourse between men is prohibited. So that in itself challenges the
rabbinic leadership to say, `Well, one second. Could it be'--and this is, of
course, my view--`that Western homophobia has actually shaped our position
more than the tradition itself?'
GROSS: When you realized that you were gay and you came out, what kind of a
reaction did you get from other rabbis?
Rabbi GREENBERG: Well, that really is actually surprising to me, because it
took me an awfully long time to deal with this on my own and to fight myself.
I was even engaged at a point, and I was really struggling. And finally when
I came out, you know, I expected the sky to fall and of course it didn't. I
got, you know, phone calls from colleagues that said, `Congratulations, but
don't tell anybody I just told you that.' I got letters from people who were
really supportive. I got very little angry or strong-worded negative
responses to my coming out. That doesn't mean that people supported it. It
just means that, I think, in the beginning, people didn't really quite know
how to respond.
Mr. DUBOWSKI: Steve, Terry asked you about coming out, but I'm surprised you
haven't told the story about going to the rabbi in Jerusalem.
Rabbi GREENBERG: Well, yeah. You know, I was 20 years old when I first began
to really be aware of strong attractions, physical attractions, to, you know,
some other fellow in the yeshiva that I was attending in Israel. And I
decided that I needed to understand this because it really scared me. And I
went to Jerusalem and found a very, very right-wing, very pious, old, you
know, man who was, you know, famed to be not only a very authoritative
halakhah, you know, Jewish law expert, but also a wise man. And he sat with a
coterie of his attendants, and basically he spent most of his day just
counseling people and answering questions.
And I was ushered in and sat down, and I asked him in Hebrew, `My master, I am
attracted to both men and women'--which is how I understood myself in the
beginning--`What shall I do?' And he looked at me with his twinkling eyes and
said to me, (Hebrew spoken), `My dear one, my friend,' (Hebrew spoken) `you
have twice the power of love.' (Hebrew spoken). `Use it carefully.' So I
was a bit stunned. It was hardly what I expected to hear. And I said to him,
`Is there anything more you can tell me?' He said, `No, there's nothing else
to say.' And his attendants ushered me out of the room.
And I understood that while he wasn't permitting me to engage in a, you know,
full-fledged gay relationship--I wasn't asking that. I was asking about the
nature of my soul, about, you know, my inner life, like was this ugly or not,
was this feeling, desire--was this sickness, what was it? And he said, `No,
no. This is one of the powers of love.'
So that experience, while it didn't permit anything, was a marvelously
supportive way for me to kind of accept that feelings could indeed be feelings
of love. He wouldn't have permitted the action upon them, but at least he
didn't describe them in some ugly fashion.
GROSS: We're talking about the new documentary "Trembling Before G-d," about
gays and lesbians who are Orthodox or Hasidic Jews. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guests are three of the people involved with the film "Trembling
Before G-d." It's a movie about gays and lesbians who are from Orthodox or
Hasidic Jewish backgrounds: Sandi Dubowski made the film, Rabbi Steven
Greenberg is considered the first out Jewish Orthodox rabbi and Michelle
Miller, who grew up in a Hasidic background.
Michelle, you were married before you came out. Did you realize you were a
lesbian when you got married?
Ms. MICHELLE MILLER: I actually discussed it with my husband before we got
married. I knew the feelings that I had before we got married were real, and
that the only way that I could get out of my parents' house at the time and
sort of free myself to experience life for myself was to get married, because
otherwise I would not be allowed to leave their home. So the only way that I
would lead a free life, really, or a life to meet my expectations and my goals
was to get married.
GROSS: So you needed marriage as a launching pad for your life.
Ms. MILLER: Pretty much, yeah.
GROSS: And your husband was willing to go along with that, understanding...
Ms. MILLER: Well, you know, I don't want to speak for him. I don't think
it's right or necessary. It was discussed before I got married, and he knew
how I felt.
GROSS: How long did you stay married?
Ms. MILLER: Close to four years. And when my parents finally disowned me, I
didn't see that it was necessary to, you know, keep that same agreement
because they were the ones that I was making the agreement for. I didn't want
them to disown me, and once they had done that, I didn't feel the need to be
married any longer.
GROSS: Do you still consider yourself Hasidic, or have you left the
Ms. MILLER: I will always be Hasidic. There is nobody that can take the
Hasidic roots from me. They are something I'm very strongly identified with.
I love my culture. I am, by no means, Orthodox in the traditional sense. I
am reintroducing Orthodoxy into my life at this point, because I have found a
community in which it can exist. There are many people, such as the
OrthoDykes, which is a community of lesbians who come from Orthodox and
Hasidic backgrounds, who get together for holidays and make shabbat dinners,
and stuff like that, and it's a beautiful thing. And we explore our frume, or
religious roots, and feel a part of it truly, whereas when I left my family, I
felt that I had to give that up because I didn't see a community in which I
GROSS: Well, it's interesting to me, because in Hasidic Judaism, you know,
gays and lesbians clearly aren't welcome, but also women aren't quite equal.
As you were saying, women are expected to be exceptionally modest and not sing
in front of men. What are some of the other restrictions on women's lives in
the Hasidic community?
Ms. MILLER: Well, they don't necessarily consider them restrictions when
they're teaching them to you. They teach them to you as, `These are things
that are finer and better, and your quality of life is better because you are
following this certain path.' And they sort of taught us that we were princes
and princesses, and that, you know, we have to dress a certain way and we have
to behave a certain way and that we're part of a special class of people.
It's--you're not ordinary common folk; you are different. And so we didn't
treat them as things that were binding or things that were holding us down or
things that were holding us back.
GROSS: Let me ask Sandi Dubowski, who is the director of the film "Trembling
Before G-d," and Rabbi Steven Greenberg if--you know, the movie is about
homosexuality and Orthodox and Hasidic, but what about the larger role of,
like, women in general in Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism?
Rabbi GREENBERG: Well, actually, in the Orthodox gay community which is, you
know, a growing kind of phenomena, there is an internal debate as to how we
engage with the tradition. Do we only address the question of gay and lesbian
liberation, or do we recognize that women's liberation is also a piece of this
conversation? And I'm on, I would say, the radical left fringe, because to my
mind, homophobia is one small expression of a larger misogyny, not in the
text. You see, I don't see this in the Bible or in the Torah, but I see this
in the way in which it's read. And so I think do think that there are real
challenges for us as gay and lesbian people to make sure that we're also
responsible for the shaping of a fully subjective, equal voice for women.
Though, Terry, I do want--I want to make the kind of conceptual piece clear,
that while I think these things are related--because I really think that,
fundamentally, the problem with intercourse between men is historically that
it humiliates, you know, the receptive partner by, in a way, feminizing or
turning that partner into--like, a woman. That's why it says, `In male, you
shall not lie with the lyings of a woman,' or in the way one sleeps with a
woman. It is an abomination. In other words, it's very possible to
understand the whole prohibition as the horror of a man behaving like we're
being, you know, acted upon as one does a woman.
And so it is, in a way, the demotion of women generally, the problem of being
a woman, or you might claim being penetrated like a woman, that is at the core
of the prohibition in Leviticus. So there the relationship between the
struggle for parity or equality between men and women and the subjective
voices and the presence in the community and the struggle for the acceptance
of gay and lesbian experience in the community and partnership. These are
not--they're intertwined realities, you know, that need to be addressed
together. So you sense that, and I think you're correct.
GROSS: I think that everybody who feels that some of their own personal
essence is rejected by their religion has to struggle with this questions.
Does that mean that they reject the religion so that they can be themselves
and live their life the way it should be lived, or do they stay in the
religion and try to change the religion?
Mr. DUBOWSKI: Terry, there's been enormous changes. I mean, we're open in
theaters in New York now for 10 weeks. Within those 10 weeks, we've gotten 15
Orthodox synagogues across New York and Long Island to co-sponsor dialogues
following the film. We have rabbis, we have (Yiddish spoken) coming from
every neighborhood in Brooklyn to the theater. I mean, on opening night, I
saw these two Hasidic women exit the theater and walk towards Sixth Avenue.
And I sort of chased them down the street and said, `I just want to tell you
that, you know, thank you for coming. You know, this Sunday we're having
eight Orthodox synagogues co-sponsoring a dialogue and I would love if you
could come. And if you can't please spread the word.' And then I turned to
them and I said, `Well, how did you hear about the film?' And one of them
looks at me and she says, `The group.' And I say, `The group?' And she says,
`The group.' And I said, `Do you mean the OrthoDykes?' And she says, `Yes.'
And it turned out that she was a Hasidic lesbian who was separating from her
husband with many children, and she had brought her straight friend to the
So I get a message on my machine that night from the friend that says, `Thank
you so much. I never really understood what a lesbian was and why my friend
couldn't just be with a man. But I see the film and I see the struggle and
now I get it.'
And I go to the theater the next night, and there's a huge crowd of Hasidem
from Monsey, and it turns out that her friend had brought her husband and,
like, her many brothers and her cousin. And by the end of the film, everyone
was standing around on the street and there was this whole, you know, Hasidic
group from Monsey and there was a modern Orthodox couple who had a gay son,
and there was an African-American friend of mine and Chinese friend and
reformed Jews and lesbian and gay and straight, and everyone was just like,
really speaking honestly and sharing their thoughts about the film and then
opening up their lives. The Hasidic woman's husband whipped out a camera and
started taking pictures of all of us. And, you know, she mailed them to me a
few weeks ago and put this note in and said, `You know, somehow when God
created the world, I believe this is what he imagined.'
GROSS: Well, Michelle, let me ask you if you feel like all of this change is
reaching your parents, is making it any easier for your parents to reopen the
door to you. They disowned you several years ago when they realized that you
were a lesbian, and you planned on staying that way.
Ms. MILLER: Well, that's not exactly the reason that they disowned me, but
it's part and parcel probably of everything. I think I was just a little
worldly. I think that my thoughts were kind of different than theirs. But I
do know that it's making waves in the Hasidic community, not on as grand a
scale as in the modern Orthodox community, because they're slightly more
insular. It will eventually get there, everything eventually does.
And if I could go back to something we were talking about earlier when you
said, you know, do I consider the ways that I was raised to be repressing.
And I don't believe, necessarily, in their practices and that why I don't
practice them the same way. At the same time, I don't want to tell them that
they can't do what they're doing, that it's bad, because they truly believe in
what they're doing, and it's not hurting them as a community if they choose to
open their minds and see that there are people that are different among them.
It's when they stop looking at that and when they choose to ignore, that that
they're really harming themselves most. But at the same time, I mean, they
have very strong practices for a reason. I believe that if we tell them that
they can't do what they're doing, practicewise, like the way they dress and
their religious observances and shabbat and stuff like that, then we're being
just as bad as they are being to us. We're being just as judgmental of them.
GROSS: Sandi Dubowski directed the film "Trembling Before G-d," Rabbi Steven
Greenberg is the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, and Michelle Miller is a
lesbian who grew up in a Hasidic family. We'll talk more about the film in
the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
Announcer: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: The Olympic Winter Games begin next week. Coming up, we talk with Lee
Benson, a reporter from Salt Lake City who has just written a guide to his
city and the Winter Games. And we consider our conversation about the
documentary "Trembling Before G-d."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is Sandi Dubowski, director of the new documentary "Trembling Before
G-d," about gays and lesbians who are Orthodox or Hasidic Jews. Those
branches of Judaism prohibit homosexuality. Also joining us is Michelle
Miller, a lesbian who grew up in a Hasidic family, and Rabbi Steven Greenberg,
the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi.
Rabbi Greenberg, did you act on your homosexuality before coming out about it?
Rabbi GREENBERG: Oh, well, yeah. I think that it's kind of difficult to
imagine real self-understanding unless you begin to make sense of it, you
know, emotionally and even physically. So I think that it's--that took me
many years. I was in my late 20s, early 30s before I began to kind of
explore, and they had a--you know, even while I had originally found a
boyfriend, I was still dating to get married for some eight years, so I had
begun to kind of understand myself, but had not really known what I was going
to do with it for a number of years.
And then finally, at some juncture when I realized that there was never going
to be a way I was going to make a marriage work, understanding my inner life
the way I did, I began to stop dating women and started to kind of really
focus on my life. And that's a very scary thing, because when you grow up--I
think you don't even have to be Jewish or Orthodox for this--we all imagine
ourselves in a kind of life trajectory of marriage and children.
And if you're Jewish, you know, I mean, this is--you know, your parents, like,
you know, can't even imagine, you know, starting a sentence without, you know,
the presumption of your heterosexuality and your ultimate marriage and your
providing grandchildren. And my mother's a survivor of the Holocaust, so it
only added a level of guilt at not being, you know, kind of--the first child
named after my grandfather, who died in Auschwitz, and my grandmother, who
perished right after the war. So I, you know, was raised with this notion
that this is, you know, where your life is going and what you're supposed to
be doing. And I would have loved--I mean, I fantasized about being a parent
when I was 15, so it's a very, you know, profound and deep sense of your
future that you have to actually undermine; you have to mourn.
And then add to that the Orthodox, you know, commitment to bear children and
to do this, which, you know, kind of gives it a religious frame, and I have to
say that probably the hardest challenge in accepting my gayness was mourning
the life that I could not have with a woman at the shabbat table and lots of
children around, and to have to begin to write a new story.
GROSS: Did you ever feel like a fraud, that there you were, a rabbi,
upholding certain principles, teaching certain principles of Jewish tradition
that you were violating by...
Rabbi GREENBERG: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...by being gay?
Rabbi GREENBERG: I think in the beginning, yeah, absolutely, because, you
know, as I said, the process of dealing with this is one in which one affirms
the all-rightness and then feels sick and fraudulent. And you run back and
forth between those feelings.
I think what finally moved me beyond the sense of being fraudulent was the
sense of integrity in front of God, that the truth shapes, that there's
another kind of, you know, fraudulent living that I began to see, in light of
the lies that I would have to tell, you know. You know, people would set me
up on dates and I would have to come up with some lie why I couldn't go out.
And in the end, I began to see it as more fraudulent, much more fraudulent, to
live a life of secrets and lies. And what helped with that, frankly, is my
personal relationship with God, which, you know, in my tradition, God is and
loves the truth. So it made no sense for me to lie any longer. And so in a
way, of course, after struggling for 15 years, you know, I no longer feel
fraudulent at all.
That doesn't mean that I feel certain. I have to add that, but part of the
human experience in front of God is to never really know what God's final will
is, and to always accept with humility that one could be wrong. And so I
think that I know and I counsel young gay and lesbian people in this way as
well, Orthodox people--I say, `Listen, we all struggle to do our best in light
of the divine will that we perceive and are taught, but in the end, we all
stand naked in front of God, tell our story and accept God's judgment.'
GROSS: Do your parents talk to you?
Rabbi GREENBERG: Oh, yes. Sure.
GROSS: So this...
Rabbi GREENBERG: I'm very close with my parents.
GROSS: ...coming out has not ended your relationship with your parents.
Rabbi GREENBERG: Well, it was very hard for my folks, and particularly for my
mom, but, no. And you know, strangely enough, the relationship with my
partner has helped very much because my parents see me happy. They see
someone who loves me very much and who, you know, takes care of me when I'm
not feeling well. And my mother feels just very comforted that I've found,
you know, a wonderful person to live my life with. So actually, in a funny
way, you know, it's turned out unexpectedly that finding a partner and kind of
getting my life settled in that way, has been a real, you know, kind of--my
parents really feel perfectly comfortable right now with my life despite the
fact that this is not what they really wanted for me.
GROSS: Sandi, just one last question for you. We've been talking about
parents' reactions to their children coming out. I'm wondering what your
parents' reaction is to the fact that you're thinking of becoming a more
Orthodox Jew, because you grew up in a Conservative family.
Mr. DUBOWKSI: Yeah. I mean, look, I'm still on my religious path, but I
think my parents, you know, really--I mean, I have so many gay and lesbian
cousins and actually so many people from the world which I grew up in who
turned out to be lesbian or gay, but still, my parents couldn't talk about it.
And they're not even from an Orthodox background. So for the first time, this
gives them something to talk about in a way where they don't have to directly
address my homosexuality. But this project has become a source of nakhes, of
pride, for them. They can, you know, tell all their friends that, `He's going
to be on NPR,' and listen, and clip out newspaper articles and make scrapbooks
Ms. MILLER: They come to so many screenings...
Mr. DUBOWSKI: And they come...
Ms. MILLER: ...and they're like the parents of the film. It's like they've
adopted everyone who's in the film. They're such wonderful people.
Mr. DUBOWSKI: They're really, really sweet. And they're taking a lot of
pride from the impact the film is having, you know, in the Jewish world, and
how much it's helping people.
Rabbi GREENBERG: You know, this straight couple, friends of mine in London,
were at a screening that we did quite recently. And they came out of the
film, both teary-eyed, turned to each other with exactly the same thought and
said, `We will never reject our children for any reason,' and they held each
other and wept. So this film is not really only about gay people, or only
about Orthodox Jews. In some large measure it really is also about the terms
of belonging and the responsibility of parents to love their children, you
know, in a way that does not limit their children's ability to kind of grow
into individual people. And it's really actually having that effect on lots
and lots of people, so we're really, really gratified.
GROSS: I want to thank you all for talking with us. Thank you very much.
Ms. MILLER: Thank you so much.
Mr. DUBOWSKI: Oh, thank you. Thank you.
GROSS: Sandi Dubowski directed the film, "Trembling Before G-d." Rabbi
Steven Greenberg is the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. Michelle Miller is a
lesbian from a Hasidic family. The film is now playing in several cities,
including New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, DC. It will open in
more cities over the next few weeks.
Coming up, the author of a new guidebook to the Salt Lake City Olympic Winter
Games. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Lee Benson discusses the Winter 2002 Games and his
TERRY GROSS, host:
After covering the Olympics seven times for his newspaper, The Deseret News,
Lee Benson is writing about the Winter Games coming to his home town, Salt
Lake City. The Games start February 8th. His book is called "Lee Benson's
Inside Guide to the Games." Benson is now a columnist for The Deseret News.
He plans on writing a column a day during the Olympics.
The Olympic organizers always knew they'd need tight security, but the
security has become even tighter as a result of September's terrorist attacks.
I asked Benson what he knows about the security plans.
Mr. LEE BENSON (Author, "Lee Benson's Inside Guide to the Games"): I guess
the budget has gone up over $300 million. The attorney general, Ashcroft, has
been here for quite a number of days just recently. We've also had in every
organization with every acronym you can think of--FBI, CIA--and it's just
ever-present now. I saw a National Guardsman yesterday with a rifle on his
back, guarding a parking lot on the west side of Salt Lake City with about
four cars in it, and this is well before the Games begin, so it has become the
omnipresent issue of the Winter Games.
GROSS: What other signs of security are you already seeing, like barricades
in the streets, razor barbed wire?
Mr. BENSON: I haven't seen any razor barbed wire, but you do see the
barricades going up on the street, although that's a bit misleading, because
all Olympics shut down streets and allow for tents to be put up in different
Olympic venues, but--for instance, I live very near the Olympic Park where the
jumping and the bobsled, luge and skeleton races will take place. In my
neighborhood, now, I can't walk where I once was able to walk, so I come
around the corner where I could just loop right around the Olympic Park, and
now there is a fence that's about 10 feet high and a guard is there around the
GROSS: Now I understand that in addition to things like fighter jets in the
skies during the Olympics, there's going to be around 3,000 closed-circuit TV
cameras in place around the city for security reasons. What do you know about
those closed-circuit TV cameras and how they're going to be used and what
people's concerns are about that?
Mr. BENSON: Well, I know a little bit about that, probably more than I
should, but I have talked to a few individuals and they've told me that, for
instance, on Park City Main Street, which will be a huge gathering point for
the Olympics, there are video cameras lining the entire street. The freeway
that connects Park City, its mountain venues, with Salt Lake City, the hub of
the Olympics, that's I-80, and it has in the hundreds of cameras that are
along that freeway, so every inch of the freeway between Park City and Salt
Lake City is under video surveillance. That will be really good for
transportation, hopefully, but it will also be able to pinpoint any problems
or potential problems.
GROSS: Now has Salt Lake recovered from the bribery scandal, the charges that
officials offered more than a million dollars in bribes in order to bring the
Games to Salt Lake?
Mr. BENSON: I'm not sure Salt Lake will ever recover from that so-called
bribery scandal, because we are such a guilt-ridden people--maybe that's not
that unusual--but I think that you go back in the history of that scandal,
which was broken by NPR, by the way, and Howard Berkes, who is a crack
reporter here and an excellent journalist, and I really think that it was his
work that brought it to the attention of the world. Yes, there was lot of
excessive bidding that went on. People were given plastic surgery and dental
treatment and shopping excursions to Wal-Mart. I mean, we really threw it out
to them, but at the end, there were only about a million dollars' worth of
gifts and inducements, which pretty much parallels other cities.
But there were a lot of people in Salt Lake, when they found out we'd given
anything, kind of blew the whistle on ourselves, and I think that that's a
case of our culture. So the scandal is kind of a self-created thing, and I
think it will remain for along time. Will it cast a shadow on the Games?
Luckily, I don't think much, because the case has been dismissed by a federal
judge. It's now on appeal at the Court of Appeals, but as we all know, these
things take a lot of time, and it could be 12 months to 18 months before
anything, if anything, is done on that case.
GROSS: What are the most anticipated events at the Winter Games?
Mr. BENSON: The most anticipated events at the Winter Games--You know what?
It's turned out to be--and this is kind of ironic--but they determined that
they would have a free ticket for these Games, and that would be to the Medals
Plaza, where spectator seating of 20,000, smack in the middle of Salt Lake
City, right across from where the figure skating will be held and where the
Jazz play when it's not the Olympics, right? So that seemed like a great
idea, to get the common person into an event, even if they couldn't afford a
And then somebody decided we're going to have this great entertainment. We're
going to have Sheryl Crow, we're going to have Dave Matthews, we're going to
have Brooks & Dunn--all these great acts, and we're going to have them perform
on the stage before they award the Olympic medals, and so now, that's become
the hottest ticket in town. They're scalping those tickets on e-Bay that were
free for, you know, in excess of $100.
GROSS: Are there any new sporting events that will be held at the Winter
Olympics this year?
Mr. BENSON: Yes, there--well, yes and no. Skeleton, which is like riding
down on a sled, face-first, that's an event that hasn't been held in the
Olympics except for at a special run in Saint-Moritz, Switzerland in 1928, and
1948 when the Olympics were there it was held. And otherwise, it hasn't been
an Olympic event. Salt Lake is going to have skeleton racing, and then
presumably it will be an Olympic sport from now on.
GROSS: It's actually an arcane but pretty incredible sport where you are
riding flat on your stomach on this sled that's really close to the ground--I
think your chin is about two inches off the ground when you're riding on
this--and the average, I think, is like 80 miles an hour. It sounds really
Mr. BENSON: It's very intense. The skeleton track record over at Olympic
Park is actually just a tad over 90. That's top speed, 90 miles an hour, and
your chin is a couple inches off the ground when you start. They say that
there isn't a skeleton racer alive who can keep it up off the ice the entire
run, so they have their chin very well padded, because about half or
three-quarters of the way down, you start bouncing off the ice. Why anyone
wants to do that one is a bit beyond me, but it'll be a great event.
GROSS: Now I imagine that, you know, since you wrote this guide to the Winter
Games that the two questions that you're asked the most by people out of
town--that the questions would be, `Where should I eat?' and `Is it true that
Mormons have lots of wives?'
Mr. BENSON: Right. In fact, I looked forward, as a Mormon myself, to
writing a couple of sections about Mormon culture and who we are, because you
know, when the world descends on Utah, they're going to be interesting in this
polygamy question about more than one wife. And so I know single-handedly I'm
not going to stem that tide, but it's a very small part of our culture here,
and it definitely is not a part of the Mormon Church. If you practice
polygamy, if you have more than one wife in the Mormon Church then you're
excommunicated. And I think that's a good thing at least to say. It still
will be a big media issue when the Olympics come, I'm sure.
GROSS: Well, the Olympics is probably a big issue for the Mormon Church,
because since because I think it's about 65 percent of the population in Utah
is Mormon, or at least in Salt Lake. You know, there's going to be a lot of
press attention on the church. The church is known for its proselytizing, but
the church president has asked Mormons not to proselytize to Olympic visitors,
not to hand out the Book of Mormon. Can you talk a little bit about what's
been happening behind the scenes in the Mormon Church in preparation for the
Mr. BENSON: Well, I sure am not an official spokesman for the Mormon Church,
but I can say that the president of the church, the Prophet Gordon B.
Hinckley, has cautioned us to not be obnoxious. And I think that, of course,
Christianity is a missionary religion, and there will be always missionary
efforts by Christians, I suppose, or at least most denominations. And the
church has remodeled both of their visitors' centers on Temple Square, and
there will be a concerted effort to put our best foot forward and to present
the message of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But beyond
that, I think the goal here by the church is to be subtle and to just present
that here we are, this is where we live. Sixty-nine percent of the state, as
you suggested is Mormon. In Salt Lake City, it's 59 percent. There are
places, such as Provo, where some of the Olympic hockey will be held, that is
as high as 91 percent Mormon. So in effect, people just coming here will be
able to be immersed in Mormonism without having to be hit over the head by it.
GROSS: Now this suggestion that Mormons not proselytize during the Olympics,
was that considered controversial?
Mr. BENSON: No, I don't think so. Generally, when you're an acting member
of the Mormon Church and the prophet says something, there doesn't tend to be
a whole lot of controversy just because of the way the church is oriented, so
no, you didn't hear a lot of grumbling. In fact, some people probably sighed
relief, because now they don't have to go out and have guilt about how many
people they're supposed to tell about the Book of Mormon.
GROSS: My guest is Lee Benson, author of a new guide to Salt Lake City and
the Olympic Winter Games. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Lee Benson. He's a columnist for The Deseret News in Salt
Lake City and author of a new guide to Salt Lake and the Olympic Winter Games.
Now for people who are visiting Salt Lake, are there any unusual regulations
pertaining to the purchase or consumption of alcohol?
Mr. BENSON: The alcohol laws, like polygamy, I assume receive a lot of
attention because there are laws in the state that aren't common, I guess,
everywhere else. They aren't as rigid as people think, I suppose. There are
certainly no dry areas in Salt Lake City or in Utah. But there are some
rules I guess people will have to get used to. You can't have a drink in a
restaurant in Salt Lake City or in Utah unless you also have some food with
it. So you have to come in, order something to eat before you can order a
drink. And then the other kind of unique rule here is that you can't get an
alcohol list unless you ask for it. In other words, they don't just bring it
to your table like the food menu.
GROSS: What's the rationale for having to order food when you order a drink?
Is that for each drink you have to order more food, or just like in order to
get any drinks you have to order one item of food?
Mr. BENSON: I think it's one item of food, and then you can go ahead and
order drinks. But you can't order two drinks at once. You have to finish one
before you start the other. And I chuckle because it's foreign to me and I
learned all this to put it in my guide book, but I'd lived here my whole life.
And I think in a way that kind of reflects the culture here in Salt Lake and
in Utah. There are some of us who don't drink who these laws just we don't
think about them because, you know, they don't apply. And then when you think
about the whole world coming and everything, it makes you stop and think and
be a bit more sensitive to people who these do matter to.
GROSS: Now being from Salt Lake, I'm sure you're going to feel very
protective of your hometown when people from around the world converge on it.
But also being a journalist who's covered seven Olympic Games you know what
it's like to be the outsider coming to the Olympics. So do you think that'll
give you more empathy and more of an understanding for the people outside
coming to Salt Lake?
Mr. BENSON: I would love to find a journalist who's been in the boat I've
been in in a couple of Games, wandering around the main media center, and be
able to go over, put my arm around him and say, `Hey, here. Let me help you
out.' Being on the inside is a nice, comfortable feeling for a change. And I
do know the feeling of going to a place that is totally foreign and you're
just lost. So I'm going to look for those people with the deer in the
headlight looks and see if I can't help them out. And I probably will find
one or two, I'm sure there will be many just like myself. I remember in
Albertville, France, I hadn't a clue the first week that I was there. And,
you know, it took a lot of work to find out where I was going, what I was
GROSS: Lee Benson, thank you very much for talking with us. And I hope you
have some time to actually enjoy the Olympics.
Mr. BENSON: This time probably more than ever. Sleep in my own bed and only
have to do--you know how it is. You go to an Olympics elsewhere and the
editor says, `Oh, yeah. Do this sidebar,' and `Oh, find this person and do a
story.' And this time we've got 42 people credentialed at our newspaper to
cover the Olympics, so I'll have it pretty easy.
GROSS: Lee Benson is a columnist for The Deseret News in Salt Lake City. His
new book is called "Lee Benson's Guide to the Games."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
You may have noticed that ABC is showing James Bond movies Saturday nights.
"Dr. No" was on this past weekend. We'll close with "Dr. Yes," from the
band Sex Mob and their CD "Sex Mob Does Bond."
(Soundbite of "Dr. Yes")
SEX MOB: (Singing) Yes. Yes. Yes, yes, Dr. Yes. Yes, yes, Dr. Yes. Yes,
yes, Dr. Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, Dr. Yes. Yes, yes, Dr. Yes.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.