"Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish" Makes Big Screen Debut

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A new feature film retells William Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet.” In Yiddish.

Aptly titled “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish,” it's been screened for enthusiastic audiences in London and Berlin, where it won the audience favorite award at the Berlin Jewish Film Festival.

On Sunday, January 16, the movie has its U.S. debut at Lincoln Center as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival. The film stars first-time actors who left their close-knit Chasidic communities in Brooklyn.

It began in 2006 when director Eve Annenberg stumbled upon Chulent, a weekly gathering of edgy Orthodox and formerly Orthodox Jews. Annenberg, a secular Jew who lives in Manhattan, was very much taken with the Chasidic garb, which struck her as Shakespearean, and the sound of people speaking in Yiddish, the language of her grandparents.

“Hearing Yiddish spoken natively by very young people — it's absolutely exhilirating,” Annenberg said. “It doesn't matter if you don't speak Yiddish. I don't speak Yiddish.

The director got a group of young men who left the Satmar community in Williamsburg to translate Shakespeare's play into Yiddish, which took a year. Over the course of that time, Annenberg was greatly entertained by the stories of two of the dropouts, who lived in a van and engaged in such “youthful hijinx” as marijuana smuggling, credit card fraud and fabricating lost baggage claims at airports.

“It was really cinematic, funny stuff,” Annenberg said. “And I thought, 'Wow! We can use all this. This is great. Let's share this. Let's put it up on the screen. Let's tell it now.'”

Mendy Zafir was about 17 when he left Satmar. He has a face that's been described as angelic. Today, Zafir is 26 and runs a marketing business in Boro Park that serves the Orthodox community. He still remembers those first weeks and months away from Satmar without any marketable skills, unable to speak English.

“I once slept on the subway for a month with a friend of mine, and I use to sleep in a van with Lazer,” he said of his friend Lazer Weiss, who also stars in the film.

Those days living in a van are recreated in the film.

In one scene they are lying down on makeshift beds in the van when a call comes in. Would they like to work on a translation of “Romeo and Juliet” into Yiddish?

Weiss asks if the woman who they would work for has food, chocolate or weed.

Isaac Schonfeld, who coordinates the Chulent gatherings, said the young actors in the film who left the religious life are traveling down an arduous path.

“You're leaving community, you're leaving family, you're leaving friends, you're leaving ritual, you're leaving comfort,” he said at one of the late night Chulent parties. “I mean, if you want to make someone insane right quick, take away all those things.”

The young men and women in the film grew up in chasidic households with no TV. They never went to the movies until they left home. Despite their deprivation of the pop culture staples, a couple of them show real promise as actors, according to Eve Shapiro, an acting teacher at Julliard who coached them. She was charmed by Weiss and Zafir, who play Romeo and Benvolio, respectively.

“They have charisma and that's something you cannot teach. You either have it or you don't,” said Shapiro, who trained British actors Alan Rickman and Jonathan Pryce at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

In Annenberg's cinematic retelling of “Romeo and Juliet,” the warring Montague and Capulet clans bear a distinct resemblance to the Satmar and Lubavitch Chasidic sects, the character of Friar Lawrence has been transformed into Rabbi Lawrence and Juliet's famous “Wherefore art thou?” soliloguy is delivered from a Brooklyn fire escape.

There's a brief bit of nudity in a scene in which Romeo and Juliet are seen through gauzy fabric romping in bed. Such material would be problematic for observants Jews, who observe tznius, or sexual modesty. A post on an Orthodox Jewish woman's Web site, imamother.com, referred to the movie as a chillul ha shem, a desecration of God's name. Actor Lazer Weiss, who plays Romeo, bristles at such talk.

“This is not a chillul ha shem. This is something beautiful,” Weiss said. “And if you don't get it, call me up and discuss it with me. But chillul ha shem doesn't make any sense because it's not even close to what we trying to do here.

Malky Weiss, who plays Juliet and grew up in a Satmar family in Boro Park, has six sisters and at least one will see the film at Lincoln Center.

“One sister for sure and another sister might come see it,” Weiss said. “I don't want anyone else to come see it. They would just get angry and not really get the movie.

Weis fell in love with Lazer Weiss, the actor who plays Romeo, during the making of the film. They're now living together in the so-called hipster section of Williamsburg and working on a screenplay of their own. It's a comedy about the clash of hipsters and Chasidim in their neighborhood.

Director Eve Annenberg hopes to film another Shakespearean classic in Yiddish this summer.