They’ve given us the sweetest taboo: “Menashe” is a fascinating, poignant and rare glimpse into the world of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, starring members of the Hasidic community. Since much of modern life — including most films — are forbidden in Hasidic culture, and because the film was shot semi-surreptitiously, it’s unclear whether there could be repercussions in this strict, tightly-knit community for those involved in this secular undertaking.
Those who flout the established taboos often face such harsh consequences as losing their jobs, their homes or custody of their children, so the Hasidic actors who appeared in the film courted peril and banishment simply by taking part. (During production the cast and crew was often shooed off by grocers and other local Hasidic business owners.)
Audiences should be grateful the filmmakers and actors took the risk and gave us an intriguingly vivid look into this rule-bound, sequestered society. Not a documentary, but based on the real-life experiences of Menashe Lustig, director Joshua Z. Weinstein’s film was shot guerrilla style in Brooklyn’s Borough Park over the course of two years, and almost entirely in Yiddish. Weinstein co-wrote the film with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed; producer Danny Finkleman, a Hasidic Jew himself, served as both advisor and gatekeeper, ensuring genuine representations of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
“Menashe” is thoroughly absorbing and offers a fresh and probing look at a cloistered community living in plain sight on busy New York streets. The story centers on Menashe (Menashe Lustig) a widower trying to win back the custody of his tween son Rieven (Ruben Niborski). The boy was not taken away by the courts, but by rabbinical dictate. Because Menashe’s wife died, the religious leader deemed it appropriate for Rieven to live with his aunt and uncle. If Rieven does not live in a two parent family, he will be expelled from his yeshiva, the Hasidic school he attends.
But Menashe is heartsick being without his son. He labors at a dead-end job at a local market with an overbearing boss and goes home to a drab and tiny apartment. His judgmental brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) takes in Riesen to live with his wife and children. He is substantially more successful financially than Menashe and lords it over him. “My son is my only consolation,” Menashe explains simply, entreating his brother-in-law to let him raise his own son.
Menashe accuses his brother-in-law of not respecting him, and from where we sit that appears to be true. Eizik in turn accuses Menashe of not having been a good husband to Eizik’s late sister. Here it’s one man’s word against another; complicating matters, poor Menashe messes up a lot, whether on the job, when making kugel or in caring for a pet. His son loves him, but Menashe is regarded by most who know him as a rather bumbling schlemiel.
To add insult to injury, Menashe feels dismissed and diminished simply for being a single man.
If he re-marries, the rabbi dictates, then his son can return to live with him. But the boy cannot live alone with his blue-collar, hardworking dad. Menashe doesn’t want to marry merely for the sake of propriety. But he desperately wants to be more than a part-time dad.
The film winds up compelling both from a cultural and sociological angle and as a universal story of a parent yearning to be with his son. Menashe, the film and the character, share a sweet spirit. And while the arcane world that it re-creates is one that will be unfamiliar to most viewers, the sentiments within it are highly recognizable.
Certainly, any single or divorced parent will empathize with Menashe. Parents will feel empathy for both the schlumpy grocery clerk and his sensitive son. And while the society Menashe lives in is rife with obligations and directives, there is a vibrant sense of community, camaraderie and mutual regard. The trappings of modern life that most of us take for granted — the internet, modern music and smartphones — are banned in Hasidic culture. Still, their world is alive with music, laughter, scholarship and a strong focus on family ties.
In the only scene in which Menashe doesn’t speak Yiddish, he bonds with a pair of Latino co-workers who insist he his lucky to live alone without having to answer to the demands of a wife and family. Lustig’s acting is terrific. His complex character is funny, fierce, vulnerable and sympathetic. (Lustig had already broken with tradition and caused a stir in the Hasidic community by creating humorous YouTube videos).
Young Niborski is intelligent and credible as a prototypical adolescent, who both yearns for his father and is embarrassed by him, even occasionally disapproving. Weinstein’s background in cinematography (he was director of photography on the documentary “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” and directed “Flying on One Engine”) is evident in the beautiful look of the film. He wrote the screenplay around the actors who signed on, embellishing the 38-year-old Lustig’s personal saga.
“Menashe” is a warm, relatable and tender tale about parental love, religion and belonging, told humanely and with vivid authenticity.