Menashe is a movie that by all rights should not exist. Sitting in the theater, watching this film for the first time, I was preoccupied throughout with the question of how the hell this movie came into being.
Some personal background: I was raised an Ultra-Orthodox Jew. At 12, I left home to study in yeshivas (religious high schools) in upstate New York; for the next five-or-so years, I was firmly implanted in the “yeshivish” system. The world I grew up in isn’t precisely the same as the world depicted in Menashe — Menashe is about Hassidim (the correct plural of “Hasid”), and I have never been a Hasid. Still, our worlds overlap quite a bit and I have spent my fair share of time in Menashe’s. I know people like Menashe, and his antagonists are carbon-copies of men I lived with for years.
One thing all Ultra-Orthodox Jews can agree on, be they Hasid or Litvak (non-Hassidic), is this: movies are bad. In fact, any form of secular entertainment or pop culture — books, music, theater, etc. — is considered expressly forbidden. “Entertainment,” as an end in and of itself, is a concept that is looked down upon. Art that isn’t strictly in service of God has no purpose. But of all art forms, film is universally the most objectionable. If you are caught watching a movie while in yeshiva, you can expect to be immediately expelled. The idea of stepping foot in a movie theater is as wildly foreign to these religious Jews as is communion.
All of this is to say that Menashe’s very existence is something of a miracle. If ever a miracle was to make me repent my current lifestyle and return to Ultra-Orthodoxy, this would be it (it won’t). Menashe was filmed in America’s premiere Hasidic enclave of Boro Park, New York. The overwhelming majority of its dialogue is in Yiddish. All of its actors, bar one, are practicing Hasidic Jews. Never before has an American film about religious Jewry been as accurate in its representation of the subculture — in fact, no American film has come close. (There are a few Israeli films that get it right. I’d highly recommend checking out The Wedding Plan, The Women’s Balcony, Fill the Void, Tikkun, Ushpizin, and the television series Shtisel.)
The fact that director Joshua Weinstein wrangled together a cast of actual Hassidim, ones who were willing to participate in the making of a film, is itself astonishing. It’s another level of astounding, though, when you consider the incredible access Weinstein managed to finagle to locations and events some of which have literally never before been seen by mainstream audiences. There’s a scene that takes place at a festive spring bonfire run by a Hassidic rabbi, on a holiday called Lag Baomer. It’s one of the more visually stunning sequences in the film, and it truly manages to get across the feeling of being in that space, surrounded by hundreds of enthusiastic Hassidim, yourself distracted and uninterested. I have been in the exact scenario. Menashe hits the nail on the head.
Menashe is not a pleasant watch (it’s especially painful the second time around). It can be read as a nihilistic movie, one that has a dim outlook on the power of individuality in a society designed to smother any hint of it. Some have told me that they read a message of hope into it. The sparking of the debate itself speaks to the film’s intelligence in navigating tricky moral and religious questions that have no right or wrong answers.
It’s loosely based on the real-life story of its eponymous star, Menashe Lustig. Menashe is a widower. He has a son. And his Ruv (rabbi) won’t allow him custody of his son unless he agrees to get remarried. There are many reasons why Menashe does not want to remarry. For one, he’s still mourning his dead wife. For another, his first marriage wasn’t exactly a choice he had made either — his father forced him into it. At one point, Menashe articulates what I think is a particularly poignant point: due to laws of modesty between unrelated men and women, any new wife of his would be forbidden from touching his son — her stepson — Reuven. What type of relationship is that for a young boy to have with his — for-all-intents-and-purposes — mother?
For as long as Menashe refuses to marry, Reuven is to stay with his uncle — his dead mom’s brother and father’s brother-in-law — Eizik. Eizik is an unbearably smarmy, condescending, truly awful presence in Menashe’s life. Seemingly incapable of empathy on any level, he disparages Menashe to his face and in front of their rabbi. While Eizik is a respected, scholarly member of the community, Menashe is working as a cashier at a local kosher convenience store. Menashe is also something of a shlimazel (someone suffering from a string of bad luck). He’s perpetually late, perpetually inept, perpetually less-than. He leads a sad, dead-end life. All he wants is custody of his child.
The movie quickly establishes the fact that Menashe is a genuine, deep believer in the tenets of his religion. He questions his boss’s decisions as they relate to kashrus, or kosher-certification, arguing that the boss is being too lax with one thing or another. He tells two men arguing about an eruv that “carrying on the Sabbath has a bad odor,” taking the strictest possible position on the issue. This is a simple man, not a scholar, but a man who truly believes.
For a film full not only of first-time actors, but actors who have not previously been exposed to film of any sort, Menashe is astoundingly well acted. Lustig himself is superb in the lead role, naturalistic in the way that only a first-time film actor can be. The actors filling out the supporting cast — from Eizik to the rabbi to a street beggar — never flinch from their honest representation of the world they live in. And Ruben Niborski, the non-religious actor who plays Menashe’s son, is magnificent in a uniquely subtle performance.
Reuven is a child caught between his love for his father and his belief in the values of his community. He is being fought over by adults, and has to make tough decisions no child should have to make — he is constantly asking himself if his father is a good Hasid, a good Jew, if his father is a scholar, and, therefore, if his father has value as a person. Because that’s what he’s been taught matters. And his father doesn’t quite fit into the small box that Reuven has been taught is the perfect and only size to house a good Hasid. Niborski gets the stress of this situation across without the crutch of clunky dialogue or sappy moments. It’s an incredibly impressive child performance.
Don’t be dissuaded from seeing Menashe due to it taking place in a complex and foreign subculture. The audience doesn’t need to be well-versed in Orthodox Judaism to follow the film’s trajectory. Menashe is not about Boro Park, it’s not about Hassidic Jewry. It’s simply about this guy named Menashe, about what it’s like to be permanently stuck in a dead-end life, to have no control over your future. It’s more important, honestly, that people unfamiliar with the culture see Menashe than, say, me, as it posits that stories of isolation, despair, and self-doubt translate across all cultures and languages. I’d like to think that after watching Menashe, Hassidic Jews will appear to others less alien and more human. Because some Hassidic men (like Menashe, both in real life and in the movie) can use all the outside help they can get.