There have been numerous retellings of Shakespeare’s most famous love story, but few — nay, none — are as weirdly wonderful, in my opinion, as Eve Annenberg’s Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish.
Just released on DVD after being shown at various Jewish film festivals, this isn’t a great movie. It might not even be a good movie — I’m too prejudiced to judge. But I have no qualms about predicting that it’s destined to become a cult classic for the Orthodox day school crowd, this generation’s frummie answer to This Is Spinal Tap — or, more correctly, the lesser-seen but far superior mockumentary, American Movie.
In a nutshell, here’s the plot: the story is set in contemporary Brooklyn, where Ava, a formerly frum ER nurse, is assigned to put on a Yiddish production of R & J as part of her master’s programme.
She collects an assortment of ex-Chasidic boys to play the main parts, and the rest of the film alternates between the young men’s real-life adventures as they adjust to life on the “outside,” and dream sequences of the Romeo and Juliet tale, where a lovely young Lubavitch woman falls for the main actor.
You’d think the jokes would write themselves. But that would have been true only if this were shtick — you know, of the “take my girlfriend … please” variety. What’s interesting about the film is that it assumes the viewer is familiar enough with this insular world, so that not only do we get the jokes, we get the irony (and the pathos) behind them.
So sure, the Montagues are Satmars and the Capulets are Lubavitchers. And we don’t need that spelled out because we can tell who’s who by how they wear their payes, nu? (Satmars let ’em fall free while Lubies tuck them behind the ears.) And what’s in the family photo Ava takes out and looks at, sighing, late at night? She and her parents swinging chickens over their heads, making kaparot before Yom Kippur. Ah, those halcyon days.
That all begs the question: Will this play outside the US?
Some of the scenes fall flat. Do we really need yet another look at ex-Chasidic guys snorting coke or sleeping with black women? That’s so very 1997.
But when the boys are most sincere, that’s when they’re the funniest, and the most touching. As they stumble into Ava’s
apartment for their first reading of the script, they look like any ragtag group of teenagers — until they open their mouths and the Yiddish-inflected English comes out.
“Who’s this Shakespeare?” one asks innocently, to Ava’s complete shock. But to anyone who knows the Chasidic world, that’s a nonstarter. Of course a boy brought up with a yeshiva education would know nothing of Shakespeare, or any other secular writer. And that’s one of the huge gaps between their world and ours.
If you don’t know Romeo and Juliet, you can’t understand West Side Story, much less West Bank Story, the fabulous short comedy-musical about competing Israeli and Palestinian falafel stands that won the 2007 Academy Award. And that’s just sad.
The reverse, of course, is also true. If you don’t know the Bible, you can’t understand much of Western literature, from the legends of King Arthur through to Steinbeck and on to today’s animated cartoons.
I was working at another local newspaper when DreamWorks’ Prince of Egypt came out in 1998. A colleague just 10 years younger than me — yes, a journalist — asked me, in all sincerity, whether it was the Egyptians or the Jews who were forced into exile by Pharaoh. Seriously, the Exodus?
What I like best about Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is its normality. It doesn’t use Yiddish to conjure up a lost world, nor to demonstrate the “otherness” of Williamsburg Jewry, a la 1998’s A Price Above Rubies. This is a film about lost boys trying to navigate their way through life and love in a sometimes scary, sometimes exciting world. The fact that they speak Yiddish merely situates the story in that particular culture.
The film’s most transcendent moment is when young Romeo rises from Juliet’s bed at dawn and, wrapping himself in a filmy bed sheet, does a slow dance of pure joy, a morning prayer to the Almighty. Boy meets girl — no translation needed.