"Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish": An Ethnic, Attitudinous Riff on the Bard

Sixty years have passed since the last American Yiddish talkie, Catskill Honeymoon, enjoyed a premiere theatrical run, and although a few postmodern (or post-Yiddish) examples have bloomed there's been nothing like Eve Annenberg's rambunctious wild flower Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish since 1950 — or perhaps ever. A feature-length American Yiddish movie made in color on the streets of Brooklyn, as well as the first ever to boast a (very tasteful) nude scene, Annenberg's attitudinous Shakespeare riff is a unique blend of psychodrama, ethnographic experimentation, and high-concept hustle. The filmmaker was inspired by and cast her movie mainly with "out" Hasidim: adventurous young people who have left their communities but retained their mameloshn (mother tongue). Lazer (Lazer Weiss) and his friends translate Shakespeare's play, which Ava has attempted to sell to them by describing its "thuggish" atmosphere, while imagining it to suit their own circumstances. Juliet (the sultry Malky Weisz) is a pious girl resisting an arranged marriage; the warring Montagues and Capulets are visualized as Satmar and Bobover, rival Hasidic sects; and Friar Laurence is transformed into a sympathetic rebbe. Annenberg also dramatizes the single most significant trope in Yiddish theater and film, namely the conflict between tradition and modernity, but with a twist. It's Shakespeare who is being contemporized by these Hasidic kids and, in revisiting the generational conflict that fueled much Yiddish popular culture, the movie's sympathies are entirely with the young.

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