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Shakespeare in translation

November 15, 2010

Shakespeare has been translated into some 80 languages and was likely translated into Yiddish in the late 19th century. The film, 'Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish,' gives the world's most famous romance a new twist.

Scene from "Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish," directed by Eve Annenberg
"Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish" premieres in the UK on November 16Image: JFFB 2010/Eve Annenberg

Move over Montagues and Capulets: here come the Chabads and the Satmars. The two rival sects of ultra-Orthodox Jews face off in a witty and bittersweet film titled "Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish."

A chance encounter between director Eve Annenberg and some members of New York's Hasidic community developed into a friendship and collaboration on the film. It explores the rough-and-tumble existence of young Jews who have left the ultra-Orthodox world behind.

Annenberg was fascinated by a younger generation speaking a language she thought was more or less consigned to the archives.

"My grandmother who spoke Yiddish and my mother who spoke Yiddish are now both dead, and I won't hear it again. And yet, the lure of speaking Yiddish and being around people with this verbal vitality is so strong," Annenberg said.

Scene from "Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish," directed by Eve Annenberg
The film deals with tension between orthodox and secular JewsImage: JFFB 2010/Eve Annenberg

An introduction to The Bard

The director also has a role in the film. She plays an emergency room nurse who's trying to finish her master's degree in Germanic languages. After she accepts her advisor's suggestion to translate "Romeo and Juliet" into Yiddish, she recruits some young native speakers to help her out.

"I think this is the first 'Romeo and Juliet' where they wake up in the morning, and Romeo reaches for his glasses. That was an important detail to me. I wanted it to be, well, Jewish. And yes, we read a lot!" Annenberg said with a laugh.

But Shakespeare hasn't been on the reading list for many in the ultra-Orthodox community, which has remained closed to much of the outside world. The young translators in the film have never heard of The Bard. They also don't have much sense of romantic love.

Life meets art

In the film, Annenberg's character makes her preference for the secular clear and even declares that she hates the Orthodox.

"I'm expressing that Jew-on-Jew hostility that I'd certainly like to see less of, and I see the movie as a rapprochement between the two camps," Annenberg said. "If ever a bunch of people didn't understand each other that well, it's the ultra-secular and the ultra-Orthodox."

In the film, the young translators' personal stories begin to overlap with the plot of "Romeo and Juliet," once they wrap their heads around it.

The back story is that these first-time actors, like their characters, are forging new lives outside of the ultra-Orthodox community where they grew up. Melissa Weisz plays Juliet and traveled to Berlin for the Jewish Film Festival where the movie premiered this summer.

"We came to Berlin and spoke to non-Jews, and it gives you a whole different perception of the world," Weisz said. "We were told that every Gentile would hurt us. The way we were raised is very insular and a little bit brainwashed."

Scene from "Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish," directed by Eve Annenberg
Melissa Weisz plays JulietImage: JFFB 2010/Eve Annenberg

More premieres ahead

The actors' experience in the German capital was fruitful. Not only were they on hand to receive the audience favorite award at Berlin's Jewish Film Festival, they also received invitations to come back and guest lecture at Yiddish courses.

Lazer Weisz plays the Romeo character and enjoyed the feedback on the film from people in the audience.

"They like the whole idea that Yiddish is coming back to Germany. It's very nice. It makes the whole thing worth it in a way," he said.

The film's next stop is London on November 16, and it will debut in New York in January. The screenings offer a departure from the usual Shakespearean experience. Since 65 percent of the movie is in Yiddish, the scenes from Romeo and Juliet appear with The Bard's original lines subtitled in English.

If the film continues to charm audiences as it did in Germany, perhaps another Yiddish language production will follow. "Much Ado about Bupkes," anyone?

Author: Alexa Dvorson (gsw)
Editor: Kate Bowen