Shakespeare's plays are always fair game for reinterpretation. In 2010, Julie Taymor changed the gender of Prospero, the magician at the core of The Tempest. In 2011, Ralph Fiennes unveiled his brilliant cinematic updating of Coriolanus. Last summer, Alan Brown's Private Romeo transformed one of the world's most famous love stories by placing it in an all-male military academy prone to bullying.
It's hard to find a more stifling and insular culture in America than that of Hasidic Jews, which is why Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is such an interesting project. The history of the Yiddish theater is filled with productions that "improved" upon the original (including Shakespeare). Eve Annenberg's film takes some wonderful leaps of fancy while staying remarkably close to the original play. Annenberg was as surprised as anyone else by her inspiration for the film:
For Jews living in New York, we have only to look around us, even on the subway, to be faced with a culture which is ours, yet not ours. The divide between Ultra Orthodox and Secular Jews is so wide that we differ on the definition of what it is to be a Jew. This has become a huge issue not just in Israel but also here, on the streets of Manhattan and the neighborhoods of Brooklyn where we pass each other, but do not talk. As a super secular person I used to have a lot of issues with the Ultra Orthodox (if I even thought about them). Loathed their politics, their effect on Israel, their general aloofness, even their style. I think it's Woody Allen who said 'Every Jew thinks that any Jew who is more religious than he is... is crazy.'
Then, in 2006, I stumbled upon a floating weekly party of Ultra Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox 'leavers' who came together weekly to chat, eat, sing, and interact with secular people and non-Jews. They listened to impromptu lectures (one regularly given on philosophy by a friend to the group, a Palestinian philosopher en route to China to teach English). I was hooked by the singing, that a cappella wail in a minor key which reminded me of my childhood, and the transporting, disorienting presence of a dozen people, age 18 to 23, who were speaking Yiddish as a first language. I felt like I had stepped back in time, like I was in a bunker in Europe in the 1940s, like I'd landed in a Yiddish Oz. The first time I perceived a 21 year old in white knee socks, black layers and peyos as a romantic vision, I knew that something had shifted for me and that perhaps I could share my new perception and the thrill I got (when hearing speedy young Yiddish babbling around me) with my own world.
Because I grew up in a home where Yiddish was the second language for my parents (and the first language for my grandparents), I found it fascinating to watch this film and hear the musicality of the Yiddish language onscreen. Many have claimed that one of the great strengths of Yiddish is that one word, spoken in a variety of inflections, can redefine an insult in many ways.
I'm not really sure if the use of "street-smart Yiddish" equates to labeling the film as "Yiddish mumblecore." After all, what little Yiddish vocabulary most Americans know comes from Jewish comedians. However:
As Annenberg explains:
I remember my jaw dropping to find out that the 'People of the Book' didn't read Shakespeare in high school. But also being astounded to discover that the poorest of my actors, young, sick, virtually homeless, kept a sock full of tzedaka that he pulled out and gave away for 'charity emergencies.' I was a bridge to 'America' for some of them while, for me, they were a dozen little brothers I adored. They might come 'by me' for a meal or a couch to sleep on. Exquisite features of young people I tease as being 'inbred to perfection.'
In her film, Annenberg portrays Ava, a secular Jew who is a middle-aged emergency room nurse working on her master's degree. Given the task of translating Romeo and Juliet from old Yiddish to new Yiddish, Ava turns for help to the EMT/rabbi (Isaac Schoenfeld) who often accompanies Orthodox Jewish patients who have overdosed to her hospital's emergency room. He, in turn, introduces her to Lazer (Lazer Weiss) and Mendy -- a team of Ultra Orthodox gonifs who have never read any Shakespeare or, for that matter, even heard the story of Romeo and Juliet (it's quite possible they've never heard of West Side Story, either).
Though Lazer (who has a drug habit) and Mendy may be ultra Orthodox, they know how to score weed (by the end of the movie, they've managed to run up a $20,000 bill on Ava's credit card). A big fan of Entourage, Mendy has been captivated by the concept of romantic love (which does not exist in Orthodox Yiddishkeit). While Mendy claims to be "waiting for a call," Lazer teases him by pointing out that "Love is a fiction, like Kashrut and the Resurrection."
When another young Orthodox Jew named Zalman (David Germano) claims to be suffering from "Kabbalitis" and suggests he may be leaking magic from having studied the Kabbalah too hard, Ava offers to let him crash at her place. Zalman's magic soon starts to infect Mendy (Mendy Zafir) and Lazer, who have been translating the Shakespearean text in Ava's apartment.
As they work on translating Shakespeare from old Yiddish to new Yiddish, they start to fantasize about a parallel universe in which the Montagues are Satmar Jews and the Capulets are Chabadnicks living in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. True to form, Ava becomes Juliet's nurse and the rabbi becomes the Yiddish equivalent of Friar Lawrence. When a young man cuts off his peyos, his father banishes him from the community.
Romeo and Juliet In Yiddish moves its cast from Coney Island to lower Manhattan, from Williamsburg to fantasy sequences greatly removed from the realities of Hasidic life. Perhaps the most telling moment comes at a party when one of the young men follows Ava out the door and asks her for a date. Her reply is blunt: "I don't hate you, I hate your culture."
If there is one drawback to Annenberg's film it's that viewers may be torn between trying to read the rapidly changing subtitles while listening to people speaking conversational Yiddish onscreen for the first time in decades. Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is visually so rich that it's difficult to take everything in with one viewing.
Bubbles Yoeli Weiss makes a strong impression as Mercutio, as does the radiant Melissa Weisz (Juliet). Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is one of those Indie films that, while hardly perfect, shows so much imagination and promise that movie lovers should go the distance to find it and experience Shakespeare from a radically new, provocative, and often startling perspective. Here's the trailer:
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