Film: Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish

I've read quite a few reviews of 2010's "Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish," and the critics seemed to struggle to know what to say about it, and I am not sure I know precisely how to address the film either. The film seems to be all rough edges.

It genuinely retells the Shakespeare's doomed love story, updating it to the contemporary Hasidic community in Brooklyn. This is a great conceit, but these moments also have the feel of a stage play with a small budget, so everything is shot in the streets or in rooms draped in sheets. I would have been thrilled to see a movie that captured the peculiar quality of the various Hasidic groups, including the insular poverty of many members and the regal, old world wealth of their leaders, but this film is too small in cast and budget to recreate a scene like those shown in this mash-up of Hasidic Purim celebrations, in which masses of caftan-clad partygoers bounce in place as they watch wild dances.

There is a Purim scene in this film, but it is a more modest affair, with the characters dressed, intriguingly, in mariachi outfits. It's an odd decision, but one of the film's real pleasures is that it doesn't shy away from odd decisions. What it cannot produce in budget or spectacle, it makes up for in eccentricity.

For Yiddishists, there is sure to be value in hearing Shakespeare's words rendered in Yiddish. For the remainder, there is the film's oddly bifurcated structure, in which a prickly and somewhat recalcitrant graduate student (Eve Annenberg, who also wrote and directed) must update the Bard's words to justify her grant money. Although she had a brief fling with Orthodox Judaism in her youth, it produced an abandoned daughter, a broken marriage, and no Yiddish. So the graduate student enlists the help of a handful of lapsed Hasidim to help her.

The hasids are played by the film's producers, Lazer Weiss and Mendy Zafir, who also double as Romeo and Benvolio in the play-within-a-film. Both were raised in Hasidic communities (as was the film's Juliet, played by Melissa Weisz), and it brings an undeniable authenticity to their performances, from their confidence in Yiddish to autobiographical elements that outsiders would have not known to include. The two young men have been living on the streets since leaving their community, engaging in petty scams, but they still have the accents and mannerisms of the Yeshiva. They also have a physical playfulness and affection for each other. It's the sort of thing you see in old photographs, in which men pose by hugging each other and are often seen with arms clasped around each other, but has become increasingly rare. But Hasidic boys grow up mostly in a world of other Hasidic boys, separated from the mild (and likely gay panic induced) unease of the rest of America. 

This sort of separation acts as a sub-plot to the film. The lapsed Hasidim don't fit in among other Hasids, but don't fit in anywhere else -- Lazar tells a story of going to Canada and being denied re-entry into America. The border guards could not believe he was an American citizen because he could not spell basic English words. I don't know if this story is true or not, but it sure feels like it could be.

For all its odd angles and occasional amateurishness, "Romeo and Juliet" is full of moments like this, where it feels like someone has pulled open a curtain on an otherwise invisible world. It's so full of such things, in fact, that the filmmakers have felt the need to add supertitles, sometimes jokingly, to explain what is going on in a scene. This feels very Jewish in its way, as though the film was like a page from the Talmud, requiring the central text to be ringed in layers of commentary and supercommentary. In fact, I think this film could have been called The Talmud of Romeo and Juliet, as there is something very school of Shammai and Hillel about it: It's not enough just to have Shakespeare, we must ask what does Shakespeare mean to the Jews? And we must ask what does he mean to modern Jews? And we must then investigate the meanings hidden within those meanings, and comment on them, and comment on the comments. 

It's a sort of a miracle the whole film wasn't just one Yeshiva boy reading the entire script in singsong and arguing with himself about what it means. Although I think I would have enjoyed that film too.