He was a Satmar dropout, a street kid getting by on credit card and airport baggage claim scams. She was a prodigal daughter, also from a Satmar family, knocking around as a student in Europe and Israel, asking the questions and plying the lifestyle no good chasidic girl should.
In the eyes of a higher power they were bashert, destined to meet and fall in love … in the words of the doo-wop classic, “just like Romeo and Juliet.”
All of which make indie film actors Lazer Weiss and Melissa Weisz (though they are not, alas, from warring chasidic families) seemingly perfect candidates to play opposite one another in the buzz-generating “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish,” part of this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.
Produced with an amateur cast recruited from young dropouts from New York’s chasidic communities, the shoestring-shot film has already sold out its Jan. 16 screening at the Walter Reade Theatre. A second screening is scheduled for Jan. 26.
The film, a collaborative effort between director-screenwriter Eve Annenberg and her cast, nearly began shooting without a young, Yiddish-speaking actress to play Juliet.
“We looked, we placed ads,” recounts Weiss, 26, who is also a producer of the film, in his distinctive, just-off-the-boat Yiddish accent. “We had a hard time finding a woman to take the part.” In 16th-century shades of the old Globe Theatre, the crew toyed with throwing a wig on a male cast member to play Juliet in drag, until Weiss met Weisz by chance at a Shabbat dinner party. He persuaded Weisz, who had become a model after leaving her Satmar family behind, to take the audition.
Weisz edged out one other candidate. “We had our Juliet,” says Weiss.
Completed in three months in 2009, the movie vies to supply more than the simple pleasure of hearing timeless phrases recast as “Ah magayfa ahm deyn tzveyta basim!” (“A plague on both your houses!”) or “Romeo O Romeo, vir bist du, Romeo?” (no translation required). Shot in Brooklyn and Manhattan for $175,000, the film-within-a-film, in its high-concept, self-reflective premise, follows a corps of restless young, formerly religious Jews endeavoring to make a film of (what else?) a Yiddish “Romeo and Juliet.” The multi-layered storyline splices a comically gritty mean streets scenario with a dreamlike enactment of the vintage play, the latter in subtitled Yiddish, with cast members playing requisite dual roles.
Weiss pitched in on the adaptation of an existing 1930s Yiddish translation of “Romeo and Juliet,” although, as products of a strict yeshiva education, neither he nor Weisz nor most of his other castmates had ever previously heard of the play or, for that matter, William Shakespeare.
Moreover, says Annenberg, who won plaudits for her previous film, “Dogs,” about a gang of female bookies: “They absolutely could not grasp the concept of anybody dying for romantic love.”
The cast had one big natural advantage. Thanks to the old-school rote learning methods of their yeshiva days, memorizing their lines in a single read proved not to be a challenge.
The action skips compulsively between the familiar and the fictional. As their “real” characters, male leads Weiss and Mordechai (“Mendy”) Zafir reprise their actual pasts as scamming teenage fugitives from their Satmar homes. Juliet’s nurse in medieval Verona finds her double in an ER nurse of contemporary New York (both played by director Annenberg, whose off-set day job is hospice nurse). And in an unscripted moment, the simulated early dagger-and-switchblade rumble between Capulets and Montagues under the Marcy Avenue subway stop attracted very real police intervention (not seen in the final cut).
Inevitable liberties are taken. The masked ball where Romeo first spies Juliet becomes a Purim party. Father Laurence is rechristened Rabbi Laurence, played by Isaac Schonfeld, moonlighting from his directorship of Chulent, the haven for youthful Orthodox stragglers.
It was at Chulent, in its last home in Midtown Manhattan, where Annenberg wandered in one night and, hearing wall-to-wall spoken Yiddish from the lips of under-30s for the first time, found her inspiration for her movie as well as much of her cast.
(The film’s ending also departs from the doom-in-the-tomb finale of the original. Here, too, it finds ample precedent in theatrical practices of earlier centuries.)
For a costume epic look, Weiss points out that the 18th-century provenance of the characters’ conventional chasidic garb supplies a built-in period feel.
The viewer may detect snippets from backstage-Shakespeare comedies like “Kiss Me, Kate,” “To Be or Not to Be” or “Shakespeare Wallah,” not to mention golden-age Yiddish theater reworkings of the Bard’s masterworks. But Annenberg points to even more pop-based reality-to-fantasy prototypes.
“I found myself going back to the ‘Princess Bride’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” she says.
The film has played film festivals in Europe, Australia, South Africa and Israel to at times bemused, but always wide-eyed audiences, taking home one prize from Berlin.
As for the on-screen and now real-life lovers, the aptly named Lazer Weiss impresses new acquaintances with his laser-like conversational focus and reedy frame. Matched with the lissome grace and contemplative air of Melissa Weisz (credited as Malky Weiss in the film), he and his significant other could end up as the Brangelina of the alt-cinema set.
Now that they have actual performing careers to develop, both are plotting to hone their skills in acting classes.
“You know the Coen brothers?” Weiss asks. “They have a movie, ‘A Serious Man,’ yes? About a Jew with problems, real problems with religion. They should come to us, for their next movie. We have us, we have our friends from ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ We have the acting talent.”
A big-budget, Yiddish-language Hollywood film with real Yiddish actors, they believe, does not lie too far in the future. For them, the idiosyncrasies of Jewish humor brought to Middle America by the likes of Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld have only eased the way.
Even more ambitiously, they have teamed to begin producing a range of offerings in 21st-century “street Yiddish” for what they contend is a steadily growing secularized audience emanating, like themselves, from New York’s chasidic communities.
The catalog would include films and music, ranging from cantorial and klezmer selections to new versions of pop standards in the “mama lashon.”
“We already have translations of Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Imagine’ from John Lennon,” says Weiss. Impishly, he adds: “You know the part where he sings, ‘No religion too’? That’s my favorite part.”
Coming soon, they’re hoping, is a documentary on suicide among chasidic youth.
Annenberg pronounces herself gratified, even awed at Weiss’ earnest, questing Romeo and the by turns taunting and yielding Juliet as shaped by Weisz.
“Lazer Weiss and Mendy Zafir are the stuff of old Hollywood,” says Annenberg, who is thinking about shooting “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” next, in Yiddish. “In two years Lazer will be working for Steven Spielberg,” she says.
As for Weiss’ movie and real-life love interest, Annenberg asserts: “Melissa is so smart and so articulate. Her Juliet in the film is distinctly different from any Juliet you’ll ever see.”
“Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” screens Wednesday, Jan. 26, at 1:15 p.m. at the Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. (between Broadway and Amsterdam). Director Eve Annenberg, seven cast members and composer Joel Diamond will take part in a discussion following the screening.