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Jewish-Welsh ‘Romeo and Juliet’ up for Oscar


NEW YORK, March 7 (JTA) — One of the films nominated for this year’s Oscars stemmed from an exhibit — and a filmmaker’s instinct.

Until he saw a historical display on life in South Wales several years ago, Paul Morrison never knew that Jews had lived among the Welsh working class — let alone that there were riots against Jews there in the early part of the 20th century.

But the writer and director of “Solomon and Gaenor,” a nominee for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, says that once he learned the history, he knew that the 1911 clash between tough Welsh miners and immigrant Jewish shopowners would provide a perfect backdrop for a love story.

“I just had the image of the black-coated Jew from Eastern Europe and these chapel-going Welsh miners,” says Morrison, who lives in London. “The juxtaposition of cultures. Both of them being Old Testament people.”

The result is “Romeo and Juliet” — with a Jewish twist.

The film, scheduled to be released in the United States in August, focuses on the love affair between the Jewish, Yiddish-speaking Solomon (Ioan Gruffudd) and the Christian, Welsh-speaking Gaenor (Nia Roberts).

Both families, while portrayed sympathetically, are depicted as provincial in their desires to keep the lovers apart. Gaenor’s family belongs to a strictly Protestant community — in one scene, Gaenor is cast out of the community in a display worthy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.”

By contrast, Solomon, who lives in a neighboring valley, is the son of religious, immigrant shopkeepers who dreams of opening up his own shop.

Uneasy with his Jewish background, Solomon hides his Jewish immigrant identity, claiming to be of English background.

Gaenor “almost accepts his Jewish identity more than he accepts it himself,” says Nia Roberts, who plays Gaenor. “It’s not like one is shown as a victim and the other is not. That’s one of the things I like about this film.”

In addition to Solomon and Gaenor’s religious struggles, class and gender weigh heavily on the film.

For Gaenor’s brother Crad — a poorly educated, physical man who is willing to use violence to protect Gaenor — Solomon is an outsider even as an Englishman who doesn’t work in the mines.

“In North London, it’s experienced as a Jewish film. In Wales, it’s experienced as a Welsh film,” says Morrison, who is also a trained psychotherapist.

The film features dialogue in Welsh, English and Yiddish. Since David Horovitch, who plays Solomon’s father, was the only actor who knew Yiddish, an instructor was brought in to coach the cast on its Yiddish lines.

The veteran British Jewish actress Maureen Lipman, who plays Solomon’s mother, had the most difficult time learning Yiddish. In fact, Lipman nearly walked out on the project at one point out of frustration at learning the Yiddish lines.

“We had to beg her to stay,” says Morrison.

Ironically, Gruffudd, who is not Jewish, had the easiest time learning Yiddish — perhaps because he grew up bilingual and because Welsh and Yiddish both contain guttural sounds.

The culture clashes that figure heavily in this film have also shaped Morrison’s life.

The 50ish Morrison grew up in the Jewish area of North London. His grandparents were anarchists and his parents founded a Reform community. Like many members of his generation, Morrison took a circuitous path to his Judaism.

In his university days, he became involved himself in leftist politics, and perhaps as a result of what he calls the British pressure not to be “too Jewish,” he then dabbled in Eastern religions. He quickly learned, he says, that “that wasn’t my language” and returned to Judaism.

The longtime documentary filmmaker then decided to apply his Jewish reawakening to his work as well.

“I reached a point where I realized that I had never really honored my Jewish upbringing in my filmmaking,” adding that the Jewish experience in Britain has rarely been portrayed on screen.

He made a series of documentaries on British Jewish identity that aired on British television before he made “Solomon and Gaenor,” his first nondocumentary.

Jewish symbolism suffuses the film. The scenes of the riot, in which unemployed miners smash a Jewish store run by Solomon’s family, are reminiscent of the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom — when Jewish homes and shops were attacked throughout Germany and Austria.

When Solomon goes to meet Gaenor, he hides his tallis in a stone wall. On one such occasion, his brother spies him hiding the ritual cloth and places it under his pillow. Later, the tallis shields Solomon as he fights the harshly beautiful elements of the Welsh landscape in a biblical-like search for Gaenor.

As Morrison jokes, “Someone said, ‘this is a film about a thousand and one uses for a tallis.’ ” More seriously, he says, “For a Jewish man, it is a very powerful symbol.”

It’s a story that Morrison believes has a universal appeal on a personal level today as well.

“I feel that something people are grappling with is how can I be with someone and not try to change them,” he says.

Morrison has faced this challenge in his own life. His wife is not Jewish — but he says their relationship was never infused with the difficulties faced by his film’s heroes. He and his wife are raising their three children as Jews, and his parents accepted the marriage with little difficulty.

“They were just happy I was getting married,” he says.

Morrison cautions against drawing too many links between his life and the film, but admits that he was moved that because of the rainy Welsh weather, the crew shot the scenes of Solomon and Gaenor’s wedding on his own wedding anniversary.

“It was very poignant. Those scenes are some of my favorite scenes in the film.”

(The other nominees for the Best Foreign Film Oscar are Spain’s “All about My Mother,” the Nepalese “Caravan,” France’s “East-West” and “Under the Sun” from Sweden. The Academy Awards will air March 26 on ABC.)

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