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Thursday, 13 January 2011
A Jewish love story: 'Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish'
Keh for News, Joy
'Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish' stars Lazer Weiss (l.), 26, and Melissa 'Malky' Weisz (r.). The play opened in Europe and will run at Lincoln Center in late January.
In Eve Annenberg's cinematic retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" the warring Montague and Capulet clans have been replaced by Hasidic sects. And Juliet's famous "Wherefore art thou?" soliloquy is delivered from a Brooklyn fire escape, in Yiddish.
In fact, two-thirds of the dialogue in Annenberg's "Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish" is in the ancient language. Subtitled in Shakespearean English, the film makes its U.S. debut Sunday at the New York Jewish Film Festival.
Annenberg's film, a mashup of the play and the real-life story of the film's actors, stars two young Hasids who left the close-knit Satmar community in Williamsburg and lived in a van. They smuggled weed, committed credit card fraud and fabricated lost baggage claims with airlines, a scene that opens the movie.
Annenberg is a secular Jew who lives in Manhattan. Her improbable collaboration with the former Hasids happened after she stumbled onto Chulent, a weekly gathering of young Orthodox and formerly Orthodox Jews. The director was taken with the way the young Hasidim at the all-night parties dressed. It turned on a cinematic light bulb.
"Because it looked Shakespearean to me, I thought, oh, 'Romeo and Juliet,' " Annenberg recalls.
Shakespeare's Friar Laurence -- Rabbi Lawrence in the film -- is played by Rabbi Isaac Schonfeld, who coordinates Chulent gatherings. He also plays an EMT who introduces emergency room nurse Ava (played by Annenberg) to the young Hasids who help her translate "Romeo and Juliet" into Yiddish. The nurse's grad school scholarship is contingent on the translation.
It's a story within a story that's taken from real life: When she's not making "micro-budget" feature films, Annenberg works as a nurse. And Satmar bad boys Lazer Weiss and Mendel Zafir, Romeo and Benvolio, respectively, helped her translate Shakespeare's play.
Weiss and Zafir, both 26, spent most of their young lives prohibited from going to movies.
"They have charisma and that's something you cannot teach," says Eve Shapiro, a Juilliard acting teacher who coached Weiss and Zafir at the request of Annenberg, a former student.
Shapiro also coached Melissa Weisz, who plays Juliet. A Satmar refugee from Borough Park, she has a B.A. in psychology, her own lingerie line and a portfolio of her work as a model.
"My family has been supportive, which surprised me," she says of her life path, which is decidedly outside of Hasidic norms.
Weisz and the other former Hasids in the cast have endured some snarky disses from the Orthodox community. On a blog called Circus Tent ("the big top for all things heimish"), a post berated the Hasidic actors for drinking overpriced coffee and associating with Annenberg, an "artsy type lady."
But Weiss reports that half of the audience was Hasidic at the film's November screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival in London.
"I thought they would disrespect it, but they very much appreciated the film," he said.
When it was shown in May at the Berlin Jewish Film Festival, it won the audience award.
Weiss and Zafir have since learned to make a living without running scams. They started a business putting up posters in Brooklyn's religious neighborhoods. Weiss now runs a PR and marketing business that serves the Hasidic community.
"They know who I am but they still trust me," he says.
And just like the fictional Romeo and Juliet, Weiss and Weisz fell in love. They're now living together in Williamsburg and working on a script for a comedy about hipsters and Hasidim in their neighborhood.