Romeo and Juliet in YiddishEve Annenberg
The play Romeo and Juliet has been translated around the world. Now film director Eve Annenberg’s gritty, funny feature sets William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in contemporary New York City with Brooklyn-inflected English and Yiddish delivered by a dynamic cast. Aside from several Yiddish videos produced by the Orthodox community in Monsey, New York, Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is the first film spoken in as much Yiddish in almost 60 years.
Ava, a wisecracking middle-aged E.R. nurse—and bitterly lapsed Orthodox Jew—undertakes a translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from old Yiddish to new Yiddish, in her pursuit of a Master’s degree. In over her head, she accepts help from two charismatic and ethically challenged, charming young Ultra Orthodox dropouts, Lazer and Mendy. When another ex-Orthodox leaver enchants her apartment with Kabbalah magic, the boys begin to live Shakespeare’s play in their heads, in a gauzy and lyrical alternate reality where everyone is Orthodox.
In what might be the first Yiddish “mumblecore” film, Annenberg creates a parallel universe (set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn), where Romeo and Juliet hail from divergent streams of ultra-Orthodox Judaism and speak their lines in street-smart Yiddish. The Bard may have never dreamed of the Montagues as Satmar Jews, but in this magical rendition, the story of feuding Orthodox families is strangely believable and timeless. The director conjures Chabadnicks (Lubavitch) as Capulets; the distinctions are subtle but astute viewers will be tickled by the detail. As they start to “modernize” and act in the archaic play, the young men fall under its rapturous incantation. Annenberg’s meditation on life and love in New York yields a rapprochement between Secular and ultra Orthodox Worlds.
By the end of this 92 minute confection—set to euphoric compositions by Joel Diamond, Lior, Basya Schecter and newcomers like Shmully Blesovsky—family is redefined, Shakespeare evaluated, Ava is happier and the viewer understands a little Yiddish and might even think that boys in long black coats and peyos are really sexy and cute. A delightful meditation on love and family—if the issues are not yet solved, they linger in the air like a little Kabbalah magic.
Williamsburg Brooklyn, now-ish
Twenty-year-old LAZER is running petty scams for food and weed money with gorgeous, Entourage-obsessed pal MENDY. The boys are living in a cube van, divorced from their homes and community: the ultra Orthodox Jewish sect: “Satmar”.
Running out of scams, they should really leave town. But Mendy has been bitten by “romantic love,” a concept which doesn’t exist in Orthodox Yiddishkeit. He is “waiting for a call.” Lazer ridicules him. “Love is a fiction, like Kashrut and the Resurrection.” The boys, although born in Brooklyn, converse in their first language: Yiddish. English is a dim third with which they are still struggling.
AVA is a middle aged ER nurse with a short fuse and a background with the Orthodox she won’t discuss. She is now a secular Jew with more than passive aggression toward the Orthodox. In grad school to better her life, she gets saddled with translating “Romeo and Juliet” from old Yiddish to current Yiddish. Her take: “The world’s most irrelevant language”.
At work in a Brooklyn ER she snipes at Satmar EMT/Rabbi ISAAC about the frequent ex-Orthodox overdoses. She takes pity on another young homeless ‘leaver’, ZALMAN, and gives him her house key when he is no longer permitted to crash on a hospital gurney.
Zalman is convinced he has O.D.’d on studying Kabbalah at Yeshiva, and has “Kabbalitis”. He’s “leaking magic” and a little worried about it. Overwhelmed by Ava’s inadvertent adherence to “Chochnassus Orchim”, an obscure Jewish tenet of hospitality, he enchants her studio apartment. Everything: the Romeo manuscript, her Chagall print, and the large, old fashioned baby carriage she is using as a bedside table gets a dose of Kabbalah magic from the perplexed but gracious young Hasid.
When Ava throws in the towel on translating the play herself, Isaac calls the boys. When they arrive at her apartment with unruly, Yiddish-rapping friend “BUBBLES” in tow; she is quietly appalled that they have never even heard of the play.
As they start to “modernize” the archaic pages, the boys become interested in the story. With a little help from Zalman’s random Kabbalah dust, they begin to live it in their minds. In their fantasy world of “Romeo and Juliet”, Romeo is Satmar, and Juliet is Chabad (Lubavitch). Although both sects are ultra-Orthodox, they have nothing but scorn for each other, and rarely inter-marry. And of course, the play is in colloquial Satmar Yiddish, with Rabbi Laurence replacing Friar Lawrence, and Juliet’s tomb an Orthodox “taharaschtiebel”. And the humor is subtly different. If Juliet will have him if he renounces his name, Romeo is all about calling the moil!
Although “banished” from their normal lives and haunts in reality, in their dream life the boys crash the Capulet feast, now a Purim party with a lax, Chabadnick “mechitzah”, (room divider) dividing the sexes. As Purim is the holiday at which a Jew is commanded to drink and to become drunk, no one notices the instantaneous romance except Juliet’s Nurse, made corporeal in their communal fantasy as Ava.
Romeo pursues Juliet and Lazer tries to comprehend their actions, frustrated by his “home” being towed, his real life father refusing to acknowledge him, his nagging drug habit and a fleeting glimpse of a beautiful girl, Juliet’s real life counterpart, FAIGIE. Faigie is another disgruntled Orthodox teen, gorgeous, brainy, wondering where her real life mother is as she tries to stave off a “shidduch” (match).
By the end of this 92 minute confection, set to temp strains as diverse as Itzhak Perlman and Panic in the Disco, family is redefined, Shakespeare evaluated, Ava happier, the viewer not only understanding a little Yiddish, but thinking that boys in long black coats and peyos can actually be really sexy and cute. A meditation on love, and a stab at rapprochement between secular and Ultra-Orthodox. If the issues are not yet solved, they linger in the air like a little Kabbalah magic.
Gerhardt Klein Audience Award, Berlin Jewish Film Festival
Select Festival Screenings
Ashkelon The Jewish Eye Film Festival (Israel)
Berlin Jewish Film Festival (Gerhardt Klein Audience Award)
Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York)
Memphis Jewish Film Festival
Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival
New York Jewish Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall
UK Jewish Film Festival
YIVO (New York
The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 was, for many Jews, the shot heard ’round the world. It was a sudden and deep shock to even secular, diaspora Jews living thousands of miles from the scene of the crime. The idea of Jew-on-Jew violence had not previously touched many of us. For some, it was deeply disturbing.
For Jews living in New York we have only to look around us, even on the subway, to be faced with a culture which is ours, yet not ours. The divide between Ultra Orthodox and Secular Jews is so wide that we differ on the definition of what it is to be a Jew. This has become a huge issue not just in Israel but also here, on the streets of Manhattan and the neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Where we pass each other but do not talk.
As a super secular person I used to have a lot of issues with the Ultra Orthodox, if I even thought about them. Loathed their politics, their effect on Israel, their general aloofness, even their style. I think its Woody Allen who said “Every Jew thinks that any Jew who is more religious than he is…is crazy”. Then in 2006 I stumbled upon a floating weekly party of Ultra Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox “leavers”, who came together weekly to chat, eat, sing, and interact with secular people and non-Jews. They listened to impromptu lectures, one regularly given on Philosophy by a friend to the group, a Palestinian philosopher en route to China to teach English. I was hooked by the singing, that a cappella wail in a minor key which reminded me of my childhood, and the transporting, disorienting presence of a dozen people, age 18 to 23, who were speaking Yiddish as a first language. I felt like I had stepped back in time, like I was in a bunker in Europe in the‘40s, like I’d landed in a Yiddish Oz. I would turn up at this ramshackle party week after week, nursing a can of Coke, snappish, irascible, intrigued, watching who would come in the door. It was a visual feast, from the fashionably unkempt young, integrating traditional talismans, from peyos to the tape measure, to the fantastically put together Satmar visions of …what? Dutch Jews circa 1600? The first time I perceived a 21-year-old in white knee socks, black layers and peyos as a romantic vision, I knew that something had shifted for me and that perhaps I could share my new perception, and the thrill I got when hearing speedy young Yiddish babbling around me, with my own world. With my classical theater back ground, (Juilliard), I started casting a Romeo and Juliet in my head, a play I love, know well, with its relatively small ensemble, and wondering how it would look in Satmar garb. Not so different from your stock Shakespeare-wear… A few day-dreamy parties later, I was hooked on the idea. Only one shy scholar in the crowd knew the play, and that there was a translation at YIVO. A year later, having cut down the English and located the Yiddish in the Goldberg translation of 1936, it proved unusable as Yiddish has evolved from that era, and the vernacular of the translation was too academic and stilted for the young actors I had chosen. Back to the drawing board.
Ultimately a straight version of the play as film was not as interesting as a layered version, which highlighted the conflicts between ‘us’. My actors, whom I made Producers, who had left the intense cocoon of their Orthodoxy in their mid-teens and still struggled with secular life, English, earning a living, etc. and I had so many differences, and yet, at core, shared humor, spirituality, creativity, and chutzpah. So much chutzpah.
For me to put our conflicts, which seem to me to be universal in the free floating self analysis/navel gazing intrinsic to being a diaspora Jew, into the film and then accentuate them was so natural that I don’t remember the thought process. I remember my jaw dropping to find out that the “People of the Book” didn’t read Shakespeare in high school. But also being astounded to discover that the poorest of my actors, young, sick, virtually homeless, kept a sock full of tzedaka that he pulled out and gave away for ‘charity emergencies’. I was a bridge to “America” for some of them, while for me they were a dozen little brothers I adored. They might come ‘by me’ for a meal or a couch to sleep on. I went to them to enhance my prayer life. While culling and writing and casting the project I was caring for my elderly mother in my apartment. When she died ‘my Producers’ were a comfort to me.
The divide between Secular and Orthodox is a scary precipice. It threatens civility and it threatens Israel. As my actors were so amazed to discover commonality with me, I would like to help ‘us’ discover commonality with ‘them’. To that end opening a dialogue in any media is important. And if it can be beautiful, with the music of Lior, Basya Schechter, Joel Diamond, liturgical strains and emo pop; if it can be colorful and hopefully witty, and show off the exquisite features of young people I tease as being ‘inbred to perfection’; if it can be a fun, feel good experience with hope for rapprochement…. that would also be moyerdick (cool).
Eve Annenberg Writer/Director/Actor
Eve graduated the Juilliard Acting Program, proceeded to Columbia Graduate School of Film, wrote and directed the eighty five thousand dollar feature DOGS; The Rise and Fall of an All-Girl Bookie Joint which was distributed in 12 countries and aired on the Sundance Channel DOGS remains a rental fave on Netflix and sells on Amazon. It’s been deemed a stylistic predecessor to Sex and the City. Subsequently Eve was sole producer on Killing Time (Sundance Competition ’02); Mitchellville (Sundance ’05); I Hate Musicals (Beverly Hills Short Film Festival) and a producer on Make Yourself at Home (Pussan Gala Section, ’08). Eve became a registered nurse shortly after 9/11 and worked for three years in municipal emergency rooms in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In 2006 she discovered Isaac Schoenfeld’s floating “Cholent” party in Manhattan and became involved with young Ultra Orthodox “leavers” and their trials and tribulations, incredible memories and tremendous wits. While developing this project she received funding for the feature, and changed the medium from HVX to the RED. Everything else stayed the same including the neo-realist casting and her commitment to doing much of it in colloquial Yiddish. Initial bits of the translation process uploaded to Vimeo garnered 8,000 views in a time period of three weeks.
Eve brought Romeo And Juliet In Yiddish to fruition for less than $500,000, inclusive of fairy dust and with zero deferrals. Eve would like Lazer to go to film school, Mendy to business school, and for Moishy to stay out of jail. A girl can dream. She has the footage for a companion documentary and has completed a script about Jewish Vampires called The Unorthodox with Matthew Jacobs. It was cited for its Super Bad style dialogue in the Slamdance Screenplay Competition.
ROMEO AND JULIET IN YIDDISH
|Josef Herskovitz||…||Capulet Fighter|
|Lisa Iadarola||…||Purim Guest #2|
|Yanni Leitner||…||Coney Island Singer|
|(rest of cast listed alphabetically)|
|Ruth Barrie||…||Singing wheelchair patient|
|Mettia Cagan||…||Purim Party Mother|
|Bonnie Curkin||…||Purim Party Lady|
|Elisha Diallo||…||Nurse with Dreds|
|Tysa Edwards||…||Nurse #2|
|Rubert Eisenberg||…||Purim Guest #3|
|Kalman Goldstein||…||Shabbos Guest|
|Charles Halberstam||…||Shabbos Guest #3|
|Adelita Carmen Lara||…||Orderly|
|Tricia Peck||…||Off Duty Nurse|
|Kate St. Germain||…||Purim Guest|
|Jeff Sturdivant||…||Cholent Goer|
|Matt Valluzzi||…||Cute Young Hasidic Kid|
|Yakov Weinbaum||…||Shabbos Guest #2|
|Stanley Wong||…||Purim Guest #4|
ROMEO AND JULIET IN YIDDISH
Eve Annenberg – (Ava/Nurse) Actor and Writer, Director, Producer
Lazer Weiss – (Lazer/Romeo) Actor/Producer
Left the Satmar Community at 15 and lived in a Budget cargo van with Mendy Z. for a year. Prior to that he was a Yeshiva boy studying Torah from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily in various Yeshivas from Monsey to Belgium. Lazer went on to learn English on his own and start Brooklyn’s most successful postering business. Lazer has never seen The Wizard of Oz, or read a novel in English. He does, however, like Coldplay. He now lives with “Juliet” in Williamsburg.
Left the Satmar school system with Lazer and together they founded the poster company. He has fully atoned for his youthful crimes and his (extensive) probation period recently finished. He has so far successfully avoided marriage. He is 25 and lives in Williamsburg, New York. A Jewish dating service illegally used his image for many years online. Mendy did not prosecute. Mendy has recently become engaged.
Moshe Pinter – (Montague fighter) Translator/Actor
Moishy helped immeasurably with the translation of Romeo and Juliet, which was ultimately done from scratch. He spends most of his time considering the differences between Poilishers, Litvishers, and the Hungarians, and the things Reb Nachman of Breslov is said to be able to do with peyos. He claims to have taken out a 36-month lease with the Probation officer, which is as confusing to the law as it is irrelevant to Mr. Pinter. Moishy actively wants to be a rabbi.
Melissa Weisz – (Faigie/Juliet) Actor
Melissa, 26 had to leave her marriage in order to leave the Satmar. Looking like a love child of Linda Evangalista and Gina Gershon, she found a job hawking cookies at Costco to survive. She is interested in modeling and psychology and has a college degree from a City college. She had never acted before agreeing to try Juliet/Faigie and was intensively coached by the director and by acting teacher Eve Shapiro of Juilliard and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art whom Eve roped in as dramaturge to help bring this plethora of first timers up to speed. Melissa’s last roommate killed herself in 2010 unable to adjust to “American” life and unwilling to go back to the Community”. Melissa has only been ‘out’ for two years.
Medody Beal – (Melody) Actor
Melody Beal graduated Lehman College with a Bachelors in Theater. She completed a certificate in Film Production at NYU. She won two Audelco’s in Lighting Design, one for Rashomon (the play) at The Roger Furman Theater. She has worked as a Lighting Designer for two decades, preceded by a decade as a clerk at the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Melody appeared as “Amina” in Eve Annenberg’s DOGS: The Rise and Fall of an All-Girl Bookie Joint. She plays “Melody” in Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish. She will play “Melody” in The Unorthodox, Eve’s new film project. There is something to be said for consistency.
Eve Annenberg Writer/Director/Actor
Eve graduated the Juilliard Acting Program, proceeded to Columbia Graduate School of Film, wrote and directed the eighty five thousand dollar feature “DOGS; The Rise and Fall of an All-Girl Bookie Joint” which was distributed in twelve countries and aired on the Sundance Channel “’DOGS” remains a rental fave on Netflix and sells on Amazon. It’s been deemed a stylistic predecessor to “Sex and the City”. Subsequently Eve was sole producer on “Killing Time” (Sundance Competition ’02); “Mitchellville (Sundance ’05); “I Hate Musicals” (Beverly Hills Short Film Festival) and a producer on “Make Yourself at Home” (Pusan Gala Section, ’08). Eve became a registered nurse shortly after 9/11 and worked for three years in municipal emergency rooms in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In 2006 she discovered Isaac Schoenfeld’s floating “Cholent” party in Manhattan and became involved with young Ultra Orthodox “leavers” and their trials and tribulations, incredible memories and tremendous wits. While developing this project she received funding for the feature, and changed the medium from HVX to the RED. Everything else stayed the same including the neo-realist casting and her commitment to doing much of it in colloquial Yiddish. Initial bits of the translation process uploaded to Vimeo garnered eight thousand hits in a time period of three weeks.
Eve brought ROMEO AND JULIET IN YIDDISH to fruition for less than $500,000, inclusive of fairy dust and with zero deferrals. Eve would like Lazer to go to film school, Mendy to business school, and for Moishy to stay out of jail. A girl can dream. She has the footage for a companion documentary and has just finished a script about Jewish Vampires called The Unorthodox with Matthew Jacobs. It was cited for its “Super Bad’ style dialogue in the Slamdance Screenplay Competition.
InYoung Choi – Director of Cinematography
Inyoung Choi is a Korean director of photography who is based in New York City. He studied film production at Brooklyn College and has worked as a director of photography and gaffer in film production, commercials, and TV since 2005. His credits as DP include about 40 narrative short films and three feature films, which were invited to numerous film festivals around the world. Films he has shot include Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish (2010), directed by Eve Annenberg, official selection New York Jewish Film Festival; Match (2011), directed by Kate Barker, official selection New Directors, New Films; Snap Shots (2010), directed by Andres and Kate Baker, official selection SXSW 2010; and Escape (2010), directed by Andres Rosende, world premiere at the 2010 Sitges International Film Festival. Inyoung was the winner of the DGA Eastern Region Student Film in 2010 for Monster (2010), directed by Jonghee Yeom, Official selection LA Short Film Festival 2010.
Soopum Sohn – Additional Cinematography
Soopum Sohn is a film director, writer and cinematographer, based in New York. His short films include Island to Island, winner of a 2002 Student Academy Award, and Fish in the SeaiIs Not Thirsty, an official selection of the 2002 Cannes Film Festival (Quinzaine). MoMA programmed his NYU thesis film Make Yourself at Home (aka Fetish) for a one week run for ContemporAsian. As cinematographer, Soopum’s films include Mitchellville (dir: John Harkrider), which screened at the Sundance Film Festival 2005 (American Spectrum), SA-KWA (dir: Yi-Kwan Kang), winner of the International Critics Award at the Toronto International Film Festival 2005, Return of Sergeant Lapins and Happy New Year (SXSW film festival, narrative competition 2011). Soopum holds MFAs from the American Film Institute (Cinematography) and New York University (Directing).
Jack Haigis – Editor
Jack and Eve have worked together on two Sundance films and one which went to Sundance Channel, as well as having cut several of the seminal indies of the eighties, including Just Another Girl on the IRT and Straight Out of Brooklyn and a host of other successful films which can be seen on his website http://jackhaigis.com. Jack’s talent and tremendous musicality always take a project beyond its budgetary limitations and his extensive knowledge of film history is invaluable to the projects on which he works.
Joel Diamond – Composer
Joel Diamond composed the scores to Welcome to the Dollhouse and The Believer. He toured with the Rolling Stones in his prodigy youth. Additional cuts on the film come from Jacob Shulam Ment and Basya Schechter of Pharoah’s Daughter and there are a cappella renditions of Jewish liturgical classics and Yiddish niggunim by Shmully Blesovsky.
- June 18, 2015 New York, NY
- Kulturfest NYC
- January 10, 2013 Washington, DC
- Washington Jewish Film Festival
- August 7 & 12, 2012 Sao Paulo
- Festival de Cinema Judaico, Sao Paulo, Brazil
- June 26, 2012 Boulder, Colorado
- Boedecker Theatre, Dairy Center for the Arts, Boulder U.S.A
- June 2-7, 2012 San Francisco
- Vogue Theatre, San Francisco U.S.A
- May 11-17, 2012 Beverly Hills
- Laemmle’s Music Hall 3 Beverly Hills U.S.A