Film | A Hasidic Romeo

As a typical 80’s latch-key kid, my parents told me to pick three after-school activities to ensure my staying out of trouble. Seeing as I had often been told I was “a character”, I was more than pleased to sign up for the after-school drama program that my school already offered.

The catch – it was in Yiddish!

My dreams of being the most sophisticated, glamorous, Orphan Annie ever, were soon replaced by the reality of being assigned the part of a boiyer (builder).    I played a working man, my only verse being  “Mit a hemmerle, ich klak, klak, klak…(with a hammer I bang, bang, bang)”.   Evidently, I was not going to be wearing ball gowns and likened to Scarlett O Hara, it was going to be much more  Barbara Streisand à la  “Yentle”.   All this to say, when I was assigned to review “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish”, I felt I had a privileged vantage point and set upon the task at hand with a certain pride (not to mention some justification for having studied Yiddish drama for four years).   That being said, I would be lying if I claimed to have run home, feet gliding above the ground, breathless, at the thought of watching a Yiddish translation of the Shakespearian classic.    As such, I was pleasantly surprised when the movie opened with a hip looking orthodox teen and her sister kibitzing around in their modern day bedroom.   There was going to be more to this movie than meets the eye.

The film centers on an attractive, yet farshumlt, woman named Ava, played by Eve Annenberg, who works as a nurse by night and is a student by day.   It becomes evident early on that Ava has some sort of a tumultuous past and a huge chip on her shoulder where Judaism is concerned.   Much to her chagrin, her academic supervisor assigns her the task of translating Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into Yiddish;  refusal to do so resulting in the loss of a $5000 scholarship.   Ava calls upon the help of a “rough and tumble” group of lapsed orthodox youth in order to translate the play. The youth are a motley crew; some scammers, some drifters, hip hoppers and druggies. All of them innocent in terms of their experience and understanding of modern culture and references, and, none of whom are familiar with Shakespeare, or Romeo and Juliet.    Furthermore, there is a mysterious young man who presents at Ava’s hospital emergency room with Kabbalitis  “a condition resulting from studying too much Kabbalah and causes one to leak magic”.   The movie weaves between fantasy and reality as the spreading of his “magic dust” allows the film to plunge into a fantastical Shakespearian realm wherein the Orthodox youth play out Jewified scenes of Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish.

Apart from the main story of Ava, the film unravels its various subplots through the roving gang of young disenchanted Hasidim. These Hasidiche Lost Boys, at times stun us with scenes of interracial sex, cocaine usage, and criminal activity not typically associated with religious the community. Because the film is fiction, and not documentary, it is possible to feel as if we have been given even greater access to the Orthodox world.  Like the original Lost Boys, the youth challenge us.   We condemn them for their mischievousness and criminality but at the same time feel for their forlorn nature, their pain of abandonment, and their longing to belong.   Ava acts as the perfect Wendy, providing the youth with a makeshift home and a purpose in life.

Although the plot is somewhat jumbled, there are interesting elements to the film.  Similar to previous documentary films that have explored the Ultra Orthodox community, (e.g. “Leaving the Fold”, “Trembling before G-D”), “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” looks at controversial issues such as arranged marriage, the idealized notion of romantic love, excommunication from community and family, and community infighting.   Definite messages are relayed about Western values,  religion and the difficulty of trying to disconnect from our past despite our best efforts to transform ourselves.    The film can be commended for its creativity.  It is eclectic in its visual style, rhythm, use of music, and special effects, even if it is a bit chaotic at times.

Eve Anneberg, the film’s director and star, is clever in her use of the original Romeo and Juliet.   Scenes from the classic Shakespearean play highlight for us that these issues of love, family, community… go beyond the Hasidic world. The film juxtaposes the iconic symbol of romantic love (Romeo and Juliet), with the sardonic quips made by the Orthodox youth. They neither understand nor believe in love, as their culture does not allow for it. Instead they seem to fear it and look upon it as just another false idol. These scenes, become a vehicle through which we start to question the Western notion that love should be the ultimate force and raison d’être.

Although the filmmaker is to be congratulated for this bold undertaking, the interplay of so many disparate elements (different character threads, subplots, fantasy vs. reality) can be confusing, and in fact, I watched the film twice in order to fully grasp its intention. However, if you can withhold judgement about some of the more amateurish elements, keep an opened mind, and are looking for something original, with a great sense of humour, “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” may just tickle your fancy.

Romeo & Juliet in Yiddish will be showing on June 13th at 1PM as part of the cinema series at the Montreal International Yiddish Theatre Festival with director Eve Annenberg and members of the cast present for the screening.  Romeo & Juliet in Yiddish is one of 16 films showing at the festival, and one of many films curated by Jim Hoberman, the senior film critic for The Village Voice and author of A Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds.   Hoberman, will be giving a talk about the history of Yiddish film at the festival on June 14th.