Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish: An Interview with the Filmmaker

This is a guest post by Miryam Kabakov, Director of the Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival. The festival opens its 18th year on March 24th.
On a recent trip to NYC, I attended Cholent, a gathering for ultra Orthodox people who feel like misfits in their communities of origin. A man greeted me at the door of this empty storefront on West 24th street on a late Thursday night.  It was Rabbi Isaac Schoenfeld, the organizer of the group.  The setting seemed eerily familiar and reminiscent of a film we had just chosen for the upcoming Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival, so I felt compelled to ask: “Have you ever heard of the film Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish?” His chest puffed up with pride:  “You are looking at most of the actors right here.” I looked at him, thinking how familiar he looked. “Wait, you’re the ambulance driver!”  “Yes! That’s me!”
The crowd slowly began to form past 11 pm and soon, people approached to welcome me, a newcomer, into their home away from home as I slowly pieced together the cast of the film.
During the same trip, I had the opportunity to sit down with Eve Annenberg, the director of Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, and hear some of her reflections on living the life of a filmmaker and the creation of this out-of-the-box film about some Chassidic misfits learning about Shakespeare.

I understand you have a day job, what is it?
I’m a nurse.
Is that working out, nursing and filmmaking?
As a filmmaker, I used to produce films that went to Sundance competitions and suddenly, the next day I’d be out of a job in NYC with no prospects.
Nursing is a portable, practical, people-helping skill, and the Red Cross was hiring after 9/11 when we all wanted concrete ways of helping people anyway. But nursing can be brutally hard, and it’s worked out for me but I am ready to move full time into the arts. I’ve acted and produced and now I am ready to get back to that as a life choice. I was very lucky to make this movie, very lucky to get funding.
How did you come to do Romeo and Juliet while you were working as a nurse?
I was taking care of my mother in 2009 in my house, 3 months after she died, I went back to work, I called hospice because I knew everything about older dying people. Right after they hired me as a full time nurse, I got funding to make this movie. So, I went to them and said: “I just got a $10,000 anonymous donation to make this movie in Yiddish.” They were willing to hire me per diem, so I did shift work while I was shooting.
During the production I found a lump in my breast and was diagnosed with Breast cancer, and had a bilateral mastectomy and two days later was back editing the film. All through my chemo I worked as a home hospice nurse while I edited the film. When we premier at Lincoln Center this month that will be a year to the day that I had surgery, a big anniversary for me.
Who is the audience for this film?
Either it’s no one or every Jew in the world. I believe it’s every Jew in the world. Young people speaking Yiddish is delightful and infectious.
Why every Jew in the world?
For those of us who are secular whose parents and grandparents came from the old country, we will never hear Yiddish, unless we become a ba’al teshuvah (someone who returns to the faith)…I miss the sound of Yiddish, my mother spoke it…if we don’t claim it it will become the purview of the ultra Orthodox and the Yiddishists.  I think languages are universal and it becomes yours if you learn it and play with it.
And why is Yiddish so important?
It might not be important but it’s important to me…to have it in my life.

What was the inspiration for this film?
When I heard 20-year old kids speaking Yiddish as their first language at Cholent, I was thrilled, and I wanted to share that feeling.

How did you happen upon Cholent?
I just walked by one day. I heard people singing and I thought it was a bunch of old men. A guy in front said, come upstairs and I said, no they are not going to want me interrupting their prayers. And I went upstairs and everyone there was under 30.

And you said, I see a movie here?
I just started going to Cholent regularly, I was not a fan of the ultra Orthodox…and that’s changed. I think it’s crazy that there is no dialogue between the ultra Orthodox and the secular…it would be so much more interesting if there were.
What have been some reactions to the film?
It’s sold out wherever it’s played, it won the Audience Award in Berlin and it was very well received in London.  There were 80 -100 ultra Orthodox people in the audience, a crowd they had never seen at the festival.  Here (in New York) we are expecting a little more controversy…I use Avinu Malkeinu (a prayer said during the High Holidays) to underscore the sex scene….if people can use Ave Maria to underscore violence, I thought, why not?  I have been looking for a replacement but it just works. It’s a holy tribute to love.  But some people are not going to like it…I am open to making a version of this film that is more palatable to the ultra Orthodox.
I was also getting bashed on the blogs. People were saying, “What does she know? She definitely doesn’t know Yiddish!”  But I believe Shakespeare is great and should be accessible to everyone.  Interestingly, I also saw a similarity between the styles of Shakespeare’s time period and the clothing of the ultra Orthodox.
Do you think that the film has influenced the lives of the peple you are documenting?
None of them had heard of Romeo and Juliet or William Shakespeare, and none of them had worked with non-Jews before.  I opened their eyes to the other people on the set: Serbians, Koreans and to certain talents they didn’t know they had. I encouraged them to go school.  I also introduced them to people interested in mentoring them.  They are not from a culture that develops their self-esteem; individuals are not rewarded in that milieu. But, still, I think we share a lot of other values.

Meet Eve Annenberg at the Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival on Saturday, April 2nd at 8:30 pm at the Sabes JCC. Rumor has it Romeo and Juliet just might show up…