Sects And The City: Shakespeare Gets Shmaltzy In Brooklyn Rework

by Rebecca Brunn · January 17, 2011

Shakespeare and Jews--two of everyone's favorite things--come together in this old-school remix that'll make you wish you had the chutzpah to be so religiously sexy. -

The stars of Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish dish about the movie, each other, and what they planned to wear to Sunday's New York premiere at The Jewish Film Festival.

Lazer Weiss and Melissa Weisz, who play the titular characters, don't look like members of the ultra-religious Hasidic Jewish community: their fashion tastes have clearly followed them in their departure from the insular Brooklyn neighborhood some years ago. Melissa, dressed in a burgundy winter coat specially designed for her and lace-up ankle boot heels, is pretty aware of that.

"I guess we look like normal people, not like with hats and stuff," she offers.

She's referring to the wide-spread positive reaction she and her castmates have received  from Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish and their role--without the traditional Hasidic apparel--as ambassadors to give the film its relative accessibility to people beyond the expected appeal base. More accessible indeed; the film, even before its U.S. premiere on Sunday, has already garnered accolades from film festivals around the world.  But the recent hype of the movie homes in not on the religious element (something of controversy in its own right), but on the far more universal, Shakespearean story and its mirror image in reality: this Romeo and Juliet are in love. Really!

Lazer and Melissa have put up with a bunch of press lately--The New York Times called in the middle of our interview to ask Lazer about his fashion sense--but unlike most seasoned film stars they have never been shy about publicizing their romance:

A lot of people are reporting that and it makes a lot of sense because we got connected while making the movie together as Romeo and Juliet…you know there’s love scenes and you’ve got to practice it. So to say we’re not a couple, to hide it, if we were making an action film it would be O.K., but because it’s Romeo and Juliet to begin with might as well keep the fantasy for people going."

So adorable! So graciously catering to our fantasies! This couple has completed the ultimate in viewer satisfaction: they have given us Romeo and Juliet, in real life, but with a happy ending. In this version, instead of dying, the lovers go on to live in Williamsburg and become the epitome of the Brooklyn elite. Musicians, designers, actors, writers, directors, poets, jewelers, and even the Attorney General of New York have flocked to their home for Shabbat dinners and jam sessions, all the while balancing their ever-increasing commitments to Romeo and Juliet. It doesn't mean the pressure doesn't get to them sometimes:

Melissa: "Yeah sometimes it does, especially this past week we’ve been talking to so much press…you start to feel very exposed--”

Lazer: -- "And then we come home and there’s no one around so we just fight with each other!"

But when it comes down to it, Lazer and Melissa don't seem to be affected by the ultra-pressurized star culture that we're used to seeing. For example, their plans for the weekend included thrift store shopping to find clothes appropriate for Lazer to wear to the New York premiere.

"I'm dressing him up as a Shtetl boy," Melissa explains.

Lazer says he's O.K. with it. Apparently she dresses him fairly often, an easy task since they share most of their clothes. At the moment Melissa is wearing an oversized blue argyle sweater of his, and Lazer is wearing a snug black one of hers.

"I love fashion and I get to dress him and he wears most of my clothes, because he can wear women's clothes and get away with it. On me, I fill it out because I have a butt, but he doesn’t fill anything out!"

Clearly neither Melissa nor Lazer pine for the days of being swathed from head to toe in conservative religious wear. Both of them left the Hasidic world several years ago, shocking the community and risking permanent exile from their families.

Now especially, with the release of the film and the attention it's been attracting, they have to cope with the consequences of creating something that their almost lifelong culture declares, well, evil.

Lazer: "Some people will hate it and say it’s disgusting and it’s the worst thing people can do. Which in their mind, they're right because where they come from this is a bad thing.”

Melissa: "They don't even know what the story is--but they think it's going to be a desecration of G-d's name"

The whole story of this film version, as Lazer puts it, is "a film within a story. It's Romeo and Juliet and it's also about us growing up." Essentially, the film is about a group of young Hasids who are recruited by an ER nurse (played by the film's director, Eve Annenberg) to help translate the play Romeo and Juliet into Yiddish. It is within this context that the story of Romeo and Juliet is played out. The part about the translating, though, is all true. Originally, Annenberg was out to create a Yiddish version of Romeo and Juliet, plain and simple. But as she learned about her young translators' lives, she incorporated their experiences into the story, thus the frame-story plot. The result is a captivating collision of the insular, mysterious world of the ultra-orthodox and the universal, all-embraced art of Shakespeare. But where some elements are obviously disparate, there are others that overlap and create some interesting old-world parallels:

"When a Hasidic guy is playing out Shakespeare, you can kind of see Shakespeare because the way they dress is so old fashioned, and the way they talk, and the works well together," says Lazer.

Shakespeare aficionados will find a sincere faithfulness to the classic romance, acted flawlessly by Lazer and Melissa, though they often discredit themselves with amiable humility ("We didn't realize that something would actually come out of [the movie]"--"We would have acted better!"). They, like the rest of the cast and crew and now the world at large, know well why it's so believable. The romantic aspect and the unavoidable sexual one are a large reason the film has been harshly met by the Hasidic community. But where some are renouncing it, others, both inside and outside of the religious world, have been embracing it.

Melissa:"There's all these people coming to it that are orthodox and Hasidic; they're really excited to have a voice and to be able to connect to it and relate to it"

Lazer: "And from the outside world it's really nice that Yiddish is a welcomed thing; they wanted it and they appreciate it."

Melissa:"It's very see that people are interested and there's a need for it and we can feed that need"

This sort of reaction, an indisputably ubiquitous theme throughout the wave of recent press, is the impetus behind Lazer and Melissa's resolve to feed the need for Hasidic insight. Though they have left the world of the Hasidim behind, the two are still devoted to bringing that world, one that to most people is completely obscured, to light. One of their many upcoming projects is a docu-comedy about the intersecting lives of the two sides of Williamsburg.

Melissa: "Hipsters and Hasidim!"

Lazer: "We come from there and we now live here so we know both of their lives."

Considering the severe disconnect between these particular Brooklynites, this movie should fuel the fire lit by Romeo and Juliet, one of outreach and understanding into a world that has been mostly seen as utterly removed from the general reality of New York City. This film  will credit the two for writing, acting, and producing. Not bad for first-timers...

“It’s so weird because we weren’t into this stuff before..." said Melissa, who had never heard of Shakespeare until a few years ago.

"She [the director] wanted us to be natural but because we were just being natural--we weren't very exposed to Shakespeare before, so we didn't have that way of talking and was fun and it was hard...she made me cry!"

Well, for Shakespeare virgins and acting virgins, it's clear that Lazer and Melissa must be naturals. The movie is a beautiful testament to the vitality of Hasidim and Shakespeare alike, and is a totally worthwhile way to spend your money when it comes to theaters in the spring. Don't be a schlemiel! Go see it, and if you're wandering around near the Bedford stop on the L and see a gorgeous couple roaming the streets, don't be intimidated; they're awesome people.

Watch the trailer HERE

Visit the Facebook page HERE

[Images via Lazer Weiss, NY Daily News, Facebook]