New York Jewish Film Festival: Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish

18 Jan

By Saul Sudin |

Eve Annenberg, USA, 2010; 91m

The Jewish film world is starved for new ideas to emerge. Just as Ava (The film’s writer/director Eve Annenberg) is tasked with updating an early-20th Century Yiddish version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for a modern Yiddish-speaking audience, so too it seems that Jewish cinema is stuck retreading the same concepts and stories. Sure, they may be classics, but just as Ava questions in the film, why do it? Who would go see such a production besides your elderly grandparent or the rare Yiddish speaking Hassid who wouldn’t object to the content? Thankfully, Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish goes beyond this premise to deliver much more than the title simply suggests and in a multi-layered Meta way manages to subtly address the past, present and future of Jewish life at home, on the stage and in film.

Ava is introduced by real life Chulent group organizer Isaac Schoenfeld to a trio of ex-Hassidic young men whose lives consist of running quick scams and bunking in the back of a rented U-Haul truck. Over time a friendly relationship develops between the boys and Ava as she skeptically lets them into her apartment and life and she begins to teach them about Shakespeare. Lazer (Lazer Weiss) is a troubled ex-Satmar Hassid living on the fringes of this closeted community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn who doesn’t believe that love really exists. How could he when he has had a failed marriage and a family that refuses to talk to him? Evident of the humor and shtick prevalent throughout the film, he naturally becomes our Romeo when scenes of Yiddish-language Shakespeare (with subtitles) begin edging in through an alternate reality as Lazer reads it for the first time.

What is refreshing to see is a more authentic representation of Hassidic life than is typically seen in cinema (Holy Rollers being a recent example of blatant inaccuracies). Instead of Capulets and Montagues, the warring families become Satmar and Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidim, two sects of the Hassidic Jewish world who speak differing dialects of Yiddish and could scarcely have more opposing ideologies for belonging to the same form of Judaism. While Satmars typically stay within their close-knit community and shun interacting at length with the outside world, Chabad believes in establishing themselves anywhere in the world that has a Jewish presence and will actively seek to find Jews who may be living under the radar. Though both groups may dress predominantly in black and white clothing, their hats especially define which sect they are, and the biggest difference in appearance may be the Satmar’s long Payos (side curls) and Chabad’s lack of them. So it seems quite against expectation that while the Satmars are portrayed in possibly the most realistic way seen yet on film (complete with mostly believable Payos on actors who cut their real ones off years ago), Chabad are shown inaccurately as too liberal.

Juliet (Melissa Weisz), is a Chabadnik, though she is shown wearing a sleeveless dress, which goes against rules of modesty that even those in Chabad who dress in modern styles follow. On the whole the Chabad life is shown without much detail, so there is little to grasp from the film but it just feels off. On the whole, Juliet and her real-world counterpart Faigie are underwritten and given too little screen time which at times makes it feel like “Romeo and Ava in Yiddish (plus Juliet)”. One big aspect we do see of her and Chabad life is a purim party, which traditionally is a masquerade holiday, one of several cleverly utilized combinations with the source material. Among the song, dance and sneakiness of being Satmars at a Chabad party (“We’re only dressed as Satmars for Purim”, they dubiously claim) Romeo catches a glimpse of Juliet from beyond the Mechitzah (a partition separating men and women at religious events) and they share an out of reality pre-marital kiss.

And yet, back in the non-Shakespearian scenes the life of ex-Satmars are shown with a stark authenticity as of yet unseen in the movies. While they mock Ava for her low-cut blouses and short skirts, Lazer and his friends have no trouble with stealing, doing hard drugs, sleeping with random women, or in the case of Mendy (Mendy Zafir)- being gay. It’s sort of a kitchen sink of the types of vices that many ex-Hassidim get involved with when bounding away from their communities, but the film doesn’t handle them with a heavy hand. Quite the contrary as in most cases they are successfully played for laughs. Truthfully it is a brilliant move to handle such a hot topic in this fashion because it opens discourse without being judgmental.

Lazer Weiss is surprisingly good for a non-professional actor, and he truly carries the film. He is called upon to express a wide range of emotions, as well as pull off comedy and romance and does so in a believable way that elevates the movie to a place beyond the sometimes amateur technical aspects that conversely represent the worst the film has to offer. Whereas RAJIY’s fellow entry in the 20th New York Jewish Film Festival Mahler on the Couch was full of sound and fury signifying nothing, this film offers a tremendous amount of social comedy and humor held back only by the limited budget. Possibly as a result of this “on the street” charm, RAJIY has been described as the first Yiddish “mumblecore” film but I would argue that there is tremendously more fantasy in this film than that genre typically allows, though it does fall in line with the plethora of non-actors involved.

Knowing that a straight Romeo and Juliet production for the Yiddish stage would probably be widely ignored, Eve Annenberg has done a wonderful job of managing many stories and layers in this film, likely educating secular audiences about Hassidim and Hassidic audiences about Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is rousing, funny, and has a lot to say about the lives of a growing culture of wandering ex-Hassidim. As they say in the film, “You’re Jewish– you should like it”. Now if only we could get support for more inventive narrative movies like this in the Jewish world.
Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is currently playing in the 20th Annual New York Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, and will have an encore screening on Wednesday, January 26th.

The festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, runs January 12th – 27th, 2011.

For a complete schedule of films and to purchase tickets, visit

to New York Jewish Film Festival: Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish



January 19th, 2011 at 12:35 am

Thanks for this wonderfully informative review.

I find it fascinating that they got the Chabad worldview wrong. I suppose this shows how difficult it is to re-create an authentic portrayal of Chasidim when Chasidim themselves aren’t informed enough about sects beyond their own. I think that’s noteworthy.

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