Melissa Weisz in Eve Annenberg’s Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish
Photo Credit Mafalda Melo
[Note: After a successful run on the film festival circuit, Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish debuted in New York last summer. It arrives this weekend in Los Angeles, just in time for Mothers’ Day]
What do you get when you take one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays, translate it into what one character describes as the world’s most irrelevant language, mix in a trio of ex-Orthodox Jewish grifters and sprinkle with some Kabbalah magic dust? You get Eve Annenberg’s whimsical and cynically funny Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, of course. It’s a mixture of divergent yet in curious ways similar cultures that puts a new spin on an old favorite while tapping into and renewing centuries old traditions.
Annenberg (who also wrote, directed and produced) plays Ava, a skeptical E.R. nurse whose grad school scholarship requires her to translate Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into Yiddish. For help, she turns to three young men who have left Brooklyn’s Orthodox community to strike out on their own. They get buy by perpetrating assorted cons and they could really use the money and food Ava offers. When an ER patient who claims to be leaking magic after studying too much Kabbalah spreads a little of that magic around Ava’s apartment, Romeo and Juliet takes over the dreams and waking fantasies of Ava and her translators and they begin to imagine the story as played out by themselves and their friends. In the process, the boys develop a better understanding of how the world outside their close knit community works and Ava is led toward a renewed appreciation of her own cultural heritage.
Yiddish and Shakespeare would seem to have about as much in common as the Montagues and the Capulets, but as Ava says about her helpers “You’re so fucking Shakespeare. You have one foot in the 16th Century.” There are even two opposing sides, Satmer and Chabad. In the end it turns out the two worlds aren’t all that far apart.
With the exception of Annenberg herself, most of the cast of Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish consists of first time actors who are themselves actually ex-Orthodox. Combined with its low budget, that gives the film a scruffy, rough around the edges quality that is less a liability than one of its charms. It’s not perfect, but it’s frequently funny and always interesting. Best of all, it opens a door to a culture you’ll want to know more about.
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