Monday, January 24, 2011

Two Satmar dropouts in Yiddish remake of Romeo and Juliette

A Familiar Story of Boy Meets Girl, but in Yiddish
By JED LIPINSKI
New York Times

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Lazer Weiss and Melissa Weisz, the leads of “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish,” along Lee Street in South Williamsburg.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo is so steeped in love poetry that Juliet accuses him of kissing “by the book.” By contrast, Lazer Weiss, who plays the lead role in the new film “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish,” [ see the trailer] didn’t understand the concept of romantic love until he was in his 20s.

Mr. Weiss was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and broke with the faith in his teens. “Romance wasn’t something we talked about growing up,” he said. Not only that, Mr. Weiss, 26, had “never even heard of Shakespeare” until the film’s director, Eve Annenberg, enlightened him.

The film, which made its sold-out American debut at the New York Jewish Film Festival on Sunday and plays again next Wednesday, combines elements of the play with plot points from the actors’ real lives. Its lead characters are former South Williamsburg Hasids who live in a van and conduct elaborate credit-card schemes. When a nurse and burgeoning Yiddish scholar, played by Ms. Annenberg, asks for help translating “Romeo and Juliet” into the mother tongue, they oblige. The narrative then alternates between modern-day Brooklyn and a fantasy in which rival Hasidic sects replace the Capulets and Montagues.

The dialogue is mainly in Yiddish, with English subtitles. And with the exception of Yelena Shmulenson, who appeared in the Coen brothers’ film “A Serious Man,” none of the cast members had acted before. Ms. Annenberg found them all through Chulent, a floating weekly gathering of religious and nonreligious Jews and hired a Juilliard acting coach to show them the ropes.

“I loved hearing young people speak Yiddish, and wanted to showcase it dramatically,” Ms. Annenberg said. The first-time actors “thought I was out of my mind, of course.”

That’s not to say they didn’t want to be famous. A number of them were big fans of HBO’s “Entourage” by the time Ms. Annenberg appeared. “We wanted to be Hollywood people and drive expensive cars,” Mr. Weiss said last Thursday, seated at Blackbird Cafe on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg.

“You were so na├»ve,” sighed his co-star and girlfriend, Melissa Weisz. For her part, Ms. Weisz, 27, who had left Borough Park’s Satmar Hasidic community, and her marriage, in 2007, said she “hadn’t seen a movie before I turned 19.” She added: “I was about to meet my ex-husband’s parents, so my friend and I rented ‘Meet the Parents’.” It wasn’t what she expected, she said.

Mr. Weiss, who grew up in the Rockland County Satmar stronghold of Monsey, N.Y., got kicked out of yeshiva at 14 for smoking cigarettes. For a while he led a life of petty crime that included credit-card fraud and filing fake lost-baggage claims, he said. He and Ms. Weisz were both working odd jobs when Ms. Annenberg cast them. The two knew each other slightly, but fell in love during the shoot.

The difficult script provided many bonding opportunities. Mr. Weiss couldn’t get his mind around “star-cross’d lovers” (“I thought maybe it’s something to do with astrology?”), and Ms. Weisz had trouble with Juliet’s famous stabbing scene.

“I’d never stabbed myself before,” she said. “I was very unconvincing at first.”

Then there was the sex scene, in which Ms. Weisz bares her breasts — a major taboo in the Orthodox world. The scene caused several Hasidic men to storm out of the London screening, though they sneaked back in minutes later, Ms. Annenberg said.

“It was pretty uncomfortable, appearing nude like that,” Ms. Weisz said, gazing at Mr. Weiss. “But it sort of made our relationship easier, you know what I mean?”

The two lovers recently moved in together on the south side of Williamsburg — not quite in the Orthodox neighborhood, but close enough for Ms. Weisz to buy the herring and kokosh cakes she grew up eating.

They hope to make another Shakespeare-related film with Ms. Annenberg, as well as a documentary about suicide in the Hasidic community — a tribute, in a way, to the fate of Romeo and Juliet.

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