G-d bless. It's that time of year again. Yes, The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center are presenting, for the 20th time in fact, The New York Jewish Film Festival. Features and shorts, 36 of them, from 14 countries, Mexico included, will spotlight every aspect of Judaism you can think of. From a composer's problems with his wife (Mahler on the Couch), to comprehending love (The Matchmaker), to the Holocaust and the artistic impulse (Vera Klement: Blunt Edge), and even teenage friendships between Israelis and Palestinians (My So-called Enemy), all will be showcased.
As for Eve Annenberg's Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, what can I say? If Shakespeare were alive today and in good health, as I'd wish him to be in, he'd probably be begging for a circumcision to honor this little film that gets the gist of his most famous tragedy down pretty good. It's not perfect, but what's perfect, I ask you? My mother's meatloaf, let me tell you, was not perfect. Not even close to it.
Now this production, I'm told, is possibly the first Yiddish "mumblecore" film you'll ever see. If you don't know what a "mumblecore" is, I googled it for you: "An American independent film movement of the early twenty-first century, characterized by low-budget production, focus on personal relationships between twenty somethings, improvised scripts, and non-professional actors." It sounds like the home movies my nephew Jacob makes and forces everyone to watch every Passover at his family's house in Larchmont after the Seder is over. Let me tell you, they're not good for the digestive system.
But this Ms. Annenberg has more talent, so let me tell you about her picture. Here are two stories. One you might be familiar with: it's about that Romeo and his girlfriend, but now it's set in Williamsburg, and the families that don't get along are from two different sects of Orthodox Jews, one with payis, one without.
The second story has to do with two young Hasidic dropouts, Lazer (Lazer Weiss) and Mendy (Mendy Zafir), who snort coke and commit credit-card fraud, but are nice guys all the same. By luck, they meet a middle-aged ER nurse, Ava (Annenberg), who out of the need for money is translating an ancient Yiddish translation of Romeo and Juliet into modern Yiddish, which she'll then cast and direct. Since she knows no Yiddish, she needs the help of Lazer and Mendy. (By the way, she used to be married to an Orthodox Jew, but couldn't handle the life, so she ran away to the West Coast, leaving her daughters, behind, including the lovely Faggie (Melissa Weisz).
If this weren't enough plot, Zalman (David Germano), an outpatient at Ava's ER, has kosher fairy dust spouting from his fingertips because he's studied the Kaballah for so long. Since Ava does him a favor, he throughout the film causes the two tales to intersect. So, let me explain. For example, Lazer becomes Romeo, Faggie goes all Juliet, and Ava, of course, takes on the Nurse.
This film makes some serious points now and then about the Orthodox life, which are not all that complimentary; as Ava herself admits when an Orthodox Jew puts the moves on her, "I don't just dislike your culture, I hate your culture." But there are numerous jocular moments, as when a newspaper banner line reads, "Romeo on the Run -- Banished from Brooklyn," and some stirring moments thanks to Weisz, who is a standout here. A career on the screen she could have.
Admittedly, at a few times, not that many, the project starts to seem like a one-trick pony, but then it immediately kicks in again with one-two-three tricks. Though neither as outrageous as Jonathan Kesselman's The Hebrew Hammer nor as vibrant as Adam Vardy's Mendy , this Romeo and Juliet is still a solid, tasty bowl of celluloid chicken soup that will get you through this chilly weather if G-d wills it. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theater" and "Intro to Mass Communications" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).