When I first started working as a journalist, a colleague asked me for advice because he was going to interview a chasidic man for a story. He said he’d never had a conversation with a chasidic person. I told him to ask questions like he would of anyone else. He returned after the interview with a smile.
“He was a regular guy,” he said with joy and surprise.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the media and film, chasidic Jews are sometimes portrayed as people from another world who joylessly follow archaic laws. Some films have featured chasidic characters that are corrupt and others who decide the only way to find freedom and joy is to escape being religious.
Thankfully, that is not the case in “Menashe,” a groundbreaking and heartwarming film that neither demonizes nor romanticizes what it means to be a chasidic Jew. It is also one of the few films in the last 70 years to be released in Yiddish. In his first role in a movie, Menashe Lustig gives a stunning performance as Menashe, a widower who is trying to make ends meet by working at a supermarket. He faces several obstacles while trying to take care of his son. It is his desire to be a good father that grounds the film in universality.
Menashe has considerable flaws. He is disorganized, struggles to get his son to school on time or be on time for work himself, and he needs to earn more money. He goes out on a date made by a matchmaker even though he has no intention of remarrying at that time. But he is charismatic, has a great sense of humor and has a good heart. For all the great experiences a father and son can share, from going to a baseball game to building a tree house, here, eating an ice cream cone or making funny faces is enough to show the bond and the connection that the father and son have. Lustig’s performance makes you root for the character, even if at times you’re annoyed with him when he’s getting himself into trouble.
As the son, Rieven, Ruben Niborski nails the role of a normal kid who wants to be happy, misses his mom and is trying to make the best of things. His smile is memorable and he has clear chemistry with Lustig. Yoel Weisshaus is also on point as the brother-in-law, Eizik, who is financially stable. Menashe resents the fact that Rieven is living with Eizik and his wife because they have a stable household and Menashe is told he must remarry in order to have custody of his son. Eizik is the antagonist who makes Menashe feel disrespected. When it is time to have a memorial dinner in honor of his deceased wife, Menashe wants to make it at his home, but Eizik tells him it’s not wise to do so because he will mess things up and embarrass himself in front of the rav. But we also see Eizik as someone grounded in pragmatism and he does care about the child’s welfare. Menashe’s boss is tough on him, and yet toward the end, he doesn’t totally dismiss a plea for help from Menashe, who is in financial need.
Director Joshua Z Weinstein, who is known for documentaries, gives the film a partially documentary feel. He smartly resists the urge for any grandiose and over-the-top scenes that could come off as cheesy. If fact, the climactic scene has to do with a kugel. Another brilliant move by Weinstein is to depict rituals with no explanation in order to provide an immersive experience for the viewer. The mikvah is not explained, nor is negel vasser, the washing of the hands upon waking up and before getting out of bed. Another key component is that the rav, played with a measured grace by Meyer Schwartz, winds up saying a simple line that is the sweetest one in the film.
Weinstein’s fine touch makes this film a juggernaut that pulls at the heartstrings. In a perfect world, people would judge others on how they act and not on their garb or religious observance. But this is not a perfect world. I would have liked to see a little more music and in the scene where Menashe is hanging out with his Hispanic co-workers, it would have been good to see him joking around more with some impersonations. We’ll have to wait for the next film Lustig is in. Perhaps it will be a slapstick comedy.
Weinstein, who is also a co-writer of the film, deserves much credit for deciding to do “Menashe” in Yiddish. Not only could it narrow the audience base, it required the script to be translated because Weinstein isn’t fluent in the language. His decision to shoot the movie in Boro Park gives it an authentic feel.
Largely based on the real life of Lustig, who shows great vulnerability and passion on screen, “Menashe” is one of the most memorable Jewish films you’ll ever see. While it’s about a regular guy, this is no regular movie.
“Menashe” is playing at BAM, 30 Lafayette Ave in Brooklyn; at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, 1886 Broadway (between West 62nd and 63rd Street) in Manhattan; and at Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston Street in Manhattan.
On Sunday, Aug. 6, after the 1:45 p.m. show at BAM, and after the 5:00 p.m. show at Angelika, there will be a Q&A with lead actor Menashe Lustig and director Joshua Z Weinstein.