Ghetto Bards: Romeo & Juliet in Yiddish and Sholem Aleichem

Mafalda Melo

Where once there were millions, there are now, at best, a few hundred thousand Yiddish speakers—mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, klezmer revivalists, and academics. Still, for a people defined less by a common territory than their shared history, the language of Eastern European Jews is a phantom homeland and even, in its preserved worldview, something of a sacred text.

The Yiddish-language cinema produced mainly in the U.S. and Poland between the First and Second World Wars is a small garden in the vast expanse of film history, clearly marked off and remarkably stable. 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 Williamsburg, 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).

As these amateur actors are all playing versions of themselves, so Annenberg appears as their would-be director Ava, a graduate-student mother hen coaxing them to provide her with a Yiddish translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The idea is even stranger than it sounds, as these ultra-insular kids are familiar with neither playwright nor play, and regard romantic love as a “fiction.”

In a way, Annenberg’s movie is a fanciful documentary about itself: Lazer (Lazer Weiss) and his friends translate the 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; Friar Laurence is transformed into a sympathetic rebbe, and Annenberg doubles as Juliet’s stage-managing nurse.

These correspondences work, but other material, including an itinerant kabbalist who enchants the world and Ava’s personal struggle with Orthodox Judaism, can be unduly complicated. The movie fumfers a bit midway, around the time Ava (or is it Eve?) loses patience with her diffident cast, but for the most part Romeo and Juliet is both tender and funny. Weiss, in particular, exhibits a cool deadpan both in delivering his lines as well as dramatizing his scams (“We’re only pretending to be Satmar,” he explains in crashing a Purim party filled with sombrero’d Bobover, or, in the context of the play, Capulets). Annenberg, a trained actress and director of the 1997 indie farce DOGS: The Rise and Fall of an All-Girl Bookie Joint, can do comedy herself—playing a wisecracking Margaret Dumont to her gaggle of black-hat Marx Brothers.

Romeo and Juliet is not the first example of mumblecore in mameloshn. A few years ago, two brothers from the ultra-Orthodox town of Monsey, New York, rocked their world with a $30,000 “kosher” thriller called A Gesheft (The Deal), and there have been several fitness, cooking, and music videos made in Yiddish and posted on YouTube. These are essentially mainstream American genres made Jewish for an insular audience. Annenberg, by contrast, is addressing a wider world by casting ghetto Jews in a universal story. But despite that, and although her movie appears to have been made without much knowledge of existing Yiddish cinema, she returns to the roots of Yiddish theater in drawing on Hasidism, both as a source of satire (as in The Two Kuni Lemls, in which a wealthy man’s daughter is unwillingly betrothed to a pious simpleton) and poetry, or, at least, exoticism (as in The Dybbuk, an exorcism tale in which a chaste young girl is possessed by the wandering soul of her deceased lover).

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.

A more scholarly reflection on things Yiddish, featured (like Romeo and Juliet) in last winter’s New York Jewish Film Festival, Joseph Dorman’s Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness is a film-essay-cum-biodoc on the author Solomon Rabinovich (1859–1916) who, taking as his pen name the Yiddish greeting Sholem Aleichem (“Peace be with you”), was at once popular writer, literary artist, and Jewish culture hero.

Laughing in the Darkness opens with the inevitable invocation of Fiddler on the Roof, the Broadway musical through which Sholem Aleichem’s invented Jewish folklore—at once emblematic of tribal solidarity and suggestive of social upheaval—entered the American mainstream. Still, the movie is not nearly as sentimental, reductive, or triumphalist as it might have been. If Laughing in the Darkness generally removes its subject from the context of Yiddish literature, he’s well situated in Yiddish culture; it’s established that, however prolific a writer, he suffered numerous professional setbacks and failures. Dorman, whose previous documentaries include Arguing the World, a portrait of four contentious New York intellectuals, does not fail to acknowledge the contradictions of Sholem Aleichem’s posthumous career—revered as a Yiddish Gorky by Jewish Communists, reduced to a children’s author in Israel, and taken for a repository of shtetl tradition by assimilated Americans.

The Jewish people invented Sholem Aleichem as he invented them. His greatness as a writer was founded on an uncanny ventriloquism—he conjured up characters through their distinctive voices and with the help of the richness of the Yiddish language, compared by one scholar to Elizabethan English. Thus, in addition to Sholem Aleichem, Laughing in the Darkness focuses on his three greatest creations: the feckless speculator Menachem Mendl, irrepressible orphan boy Motl Peyse, and the humorously long-suffering dairyman Tevya. Analysis is provided by an informative cast of talking heads, including Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter, the ageless Bel Kaufman; academic Yiddishists Dan Miron, David Roskies, and Ruth Wisse; and translator Hillel Halkin, who proves to be the movie’s sharpest, funniest, most Sholem Aleichem–like commentator. Additional substance comes from Dorman’s ongoing use of period photos and newsreel footage. In the spirit of the Sholem Aleichem oeuvre, Laughing in the Darkness is a collective family album.

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