Review: Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish


The more I’ve sat and thought about it, the more I realize there’s something pretty special about Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish. There’s a fair share of problems, don’t get me wrong. It’s plagued by amateur acting, poor cinematography, and really just a general cheap, student-quality look to it. It’s not well paced, there’s a bizarre magical realism element that would be better off excised entirely, and it’s maddeningly plagued by technical issues from basic sound mixing and editing to some awful and, frankly, utterly unnecessary green screen work. 

That said, as an exceptionally off-kilter adaptation of the western world’s most famous narrative and as a look at the Orthodox Jewish culture of Brooklyn, there really is something very special going on here. 

Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish
Director: Eve Annenberg
Release Date: May 11th, 2012 (LA)
Rating: UR

Ava (Eve Annenberg, who also wrote and produced) is a lapsed Orthodox Jew/graduate student moonlighting as a nurse that’s given an unlikely assignment: update a very old Yiddish translation of Romeo and Juliet into a more modern Yiddish. Realizing she’s got nowhere near the Yiddish mastery to complete such a task alone, she enlists the help of two outed Hassids, Lazer (Lazer Weiss) and Mendy (Mendy Zafir). Being “outed” in the ultra Orthodox sect of Judaism means they’ve essentially been ejected from the religion. Think of is as Jewish excommunication, and you won’t be too terribly far off. With no real skills from a lifetime of religious study, and English as a distant third language, Lazer and Mendy have been living out of a moving truck and pulling small cons to get enough money for food and drugs. With this translation gig as their only chance to make some money for the immediate future, they don’t have any choice but to help.

In so doing, they “modernize” Romeo and Juliet into something Hassids might understand better, setting the story in Williamsburg and casting the Capulets and the Montagues into the Satmar and Chabad sects of Orthodox Judaism. There’s a litany of philosophical differences between the two sects that I haven’t the time or the patience to discuss, but to use the quick visual reference from the film, Satmar Jews have the little side curls called payot, and the Chabad do not. At any rate, through the translation of the text, the secular Ava and the thuggish-yet-traditional Lazer and Mendy begin to learn more about the others point of view, often illustrated through sequences of the Yiddish translation of Romeo and Juliet, featuring Lazer and Romeo and a young girl who, in reality, is trapped in an arranged marriage, Faggie (Melissa Weisz), as Juliet.

One thing the film does absolutely well is the juxtaposition of these Jewish values being explored with the story of Romeo and Juliet and how the two intertwine rather wonderfully, much to the surprise of Lazer and Mendy. It’s a world of rigid, warring sects that really aren’t too terribly different, arranged marriages, and the young people caught in the maw of it all. You come out of the film with a greater appreciation for the source material, something that is probably lost after decades of having it crammed down your throat across every medium your entire life, and a greater understanding of the world of ultra-Orthodox Judiasm, something many people only know through its oddly-dressed practitioners. 

This is the key place where Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish redeems itself despite a litany of otherwise damning faults. Even with a character who claims he’s studied Kabbalah so much that he’s now leaking magic and goes around “enchanting” people’s homes (who was really the only part of the movie I out and out dreaded), the film feels authentic and unique in a way that’s hard to pin down. I’ve seen film after film featuring Jewish people bemoaning their own culture, but these films tend to feature more secular Jews. Hell, basically every Woody Allen film that he stars in has some level of commentary on secular Jewish culture, but it’s rare to find the camera pointed at a group of Hassidic Jews. It’s clear Eve Annenberg has a fair amount of contempt for them (her character in the film speaking a lot of that contempt quite plainly), but the film makes the attempt to pierce this almost impenetrable veil of mystery behind the culture and shows something that’s as relatable as, well, Romeo and Juliet

I don’t think Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is going to be a film everyone can enjoy, especially those that have trouble seeing past the technical difficulties. Yeah, the acting is a little poor, but considering this is from a cast of non-actors with parts that are, in some cases, entirely in Yiddish, a language that the film even calls irrelevant, there’s decent mileage. It’s an honest, funky look at Judaism here that you’re not going to find anywhere else.