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Where once there were millions, there are now, at best, a few hundred thousand Yiddish speakers—mostly ultra-orthodox Jews, klezmer revivalists and academics. Still, for a people defined less by a common territory than their shared history, the language of Eastern European Jews is a phantom homeland and even, in its preserved worldview, something of a sacred text.
The Yiddish-language cinema produced mainly in the U.S. and Poland between the first and second world wars is a small garden in the vast expanse of film history, clearly marked off and remarkably stable. Sixty years have passed since the last American Yiddish talkie, Catskill Honeymoon, enjoyed a premiere theatrical run, and although a few postmodern (or post-Yiddish) examples have bloomed, there has been nothing like Eve Annenberg’s rambunctious wild flower, Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, since 1950—or perhaps ever.
A feature-length American Yiddish movie made in color on the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as well as the first ever to boast a (very tasteful) nude scene, Annenberg’s attitudinous Shakespeare riff is a unique blend of psychodrama, ethnographic experimentation and high-concept hustle. The filmmaker was inspired by and cast her movie mainly with “out” Hasidim: adventurous young people who have left their communities but retained their mameloshn (mother tongue).
As these amateur actors are all playing versions of themselves, so Annenberg appears as their would-be director Ava, a graduate-student mother hen coaxing them to provide her with a Yiddish translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The idea is even stranger than it sounds, as these ultra-insular kids are familiar with neither playwright nor play and regard romantic love as a “fiction.”
In a way, Annenberg’s movie is a fanciful documentary about itself: Lazer (Lazer Weiss) and his friends translate Shakespeare’s play, which Ava has attempted to sell to them by describing its “thuggish” atmosphere, while imagining it to suit their own circumstances. Juliet (the sultry Malky Weisz) is a pious girl resisting an arranged marriage; the warring Montagues and Capulets are visualized as Satmar and Bobover, rival Hasidic sects; Friar Laurence is transformed into a sympathetic rebbe, and Annenberg doubles as Juliet’s stage-managing nurse.
These correspondences work, but other material, including an itinerant kabbalist who enchants the world and Ava’s personal struggle with Orthodox Judaism, can be unduly complicated. The movie fumfers a bit midway, around the time Ava (or is it Eve?) loses patience with her diffident cast, but for the most part, Romeo and Juliet is both tender and funny. Weiss, in particular, exhibits a cool deadpan both in delivering his lines as well as dramatizing his scams (“We’re only pretending to be Satmar,” he explains in crashing a Purim party filled with sombrero’d Bobover, or, in the context of the play, Capulets). Annenberg, a trained actress and director of the 1997 indie farce DOGS: The Rise and Fall of an All-Girl Bookie Joint, can do comedy herself—playing a wisecracking Margaret Dumont to her gaggle of black-hat Marx Brothers.
Romeo and Juliet is not the first example of mumblecore in mameloshn. A few years ago, two brothers from the ultra-orthodox town of Monsey, New York, rocked their world with a $30,000 “kosher” thriller called A Gesheft (The Deal), and there have been several fitness, cooking and music videos made in Yiddish and posted on YouTube. These are essentially mainstream American genres made Jewish for an insular audience. Annenberg, by contrast, is addressing a wider world by casting ghetto Jews in a universal story. But despite that, and although her movie appears to have been made without much knowledge of existing Yiddish cinema, she returns to the roots of Yiddish theater in drawing on Hasidism, both as a source of satire (as in The Two Kuni Lemls, in which a wealthy man’s daughter is unwillingly betrothed to a pious simpleton) and poetry, or, at least, exoticism (as in The Dybbuk, an exorcism tale in which a chaste young girl is possessed by the wandering soul of her deceased lover).
Annenberg also dramatizes the single most significant trope in Yiddish theater and film, namely the conflict between tradition and modernity, but with a twist. It’s Shakespeare who is being contemporized by these Hasidic kids, and in revisiting the generational conflict that fueled much Yiddish popular culture, the movie’s sympathies are entirely with the young.
This review did not appear in print.
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