A surprising bit of trivia from Thursday night where I and a packed house of people arrived at the DCJCC to watch “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” as part of the 23rd annual Washington, DC Jewish Film Festival.
The film juxtaposes the world of the contemporary Hassidic Brooklyn with the world of Shakespeare. In the modern storyline, a bitter ex-Jewish grad student and some cast-off Hassids translate the English play and, with a little help from a fantastical Kabbalistic injection, re-tell the story from an ultra-Orthodox perspective, “in fair Brooklyn, where we lay our scene.” 😛 All joking aside, the allegory unfolded in a way where I realized that these cultures were very similar: arranged marriages, age-old feuding between similar communities, women sadly relegated to the background. The modern-day storyline was strangely more hopeful—despite drugs and homelessness and familial estrangement, the main group of disparate people ultimately formed a strong bond of friendship.
The film was made on a very modest budget, featuring some mediocre acting from amateur performers and occasional sound-editing difficulties. But the dialogue (and even subtitles, which translated both Yiddish and Shakespearean English) were witty, and the story was more clever and moving than I was expecting. In a post-viewing roundtable, Eve Annenberg (who wrote, produced, directed and acted) and Lazer Weiss (who co-translated, starred and served as much of the real-life inspiration for the plot) discussed their intention to highlight the gap between the secular and Orthodox worlds. Many attendees questioned Weiss about his break from the Satmar community, but I was personally more interested in the linguistic details: it took two years to translate Romeo and Juliet into Yiddish, even just using vernacular language rather than rhyming iambic pentameter. Even so, this bit of pre-production surely rivals any output by a movie blockbuster or Oscar contender!
“Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” was co-sponsored with Yiddish of Greater Washington and co-presented with The Shakespeare Theatre. The Washington, DC Jewish Film Festival continues until Jan. 13. Check out my earlier-year reviews of “Love During Wartime,” “Judios en el espacio” and “La Cámera Obscura”.