A movie pitch: A widowed grocery store clerk wants to maintain custody of his school-aged son after his wife passes away. His wife’s family and members of the community are skeptical he is up for the task; after all, they say, a home without a mother isn’t a place to bring up a child. The film unfolds as the man juggles work, family, and his own feelings about loss, parenthood, and faith in a final gambit to prove he can capably parent his son without a mother in the picture.
One more thing: the man in question is an ultra-Orthodox Jew living in Bourough Park.
Oh, and the dialogue is almost entirely in Yiddish. Nu, what do you think?
Authentic, heartfelt, and unique, festival darling "Menashe" has the makings of a Jewish cult classic. On top of that, the film manages to offer viewers of any background a glimpse into a fairly insular modern-day society while maintaining an accessibility that keeps the film relatable and entertaining rather than voyeuristic.
I met the team behind ‘Menashe,’ which is now playing at select theaters in the Greater Washington area, when the film premiered at the Washington Jewish Film Festival earlier this year.
“My goal was to make a humanistic film that was going to be honest in how it talked about religion,” said director Joshua Z. Weinstein, who is Jewish but not Orthodox himself. “I feel that most films about religion are usually either about people leaving, because ‘it’s so awful,’ or really they’re not really talked about. You don’t really see films where people happen to be religious and that’s kind of how I wanted to approached this.”
Weinstein’s background in documentary filmmaking was reflected in his desire for authenticity. “I wanted it to feel like we’re eavesdropping on scenes that were never seen before,” he said.
The story is set in the Chassidic community in Brooklyn, and based on the real-life experiences of its star, Menashe Lustig. Weinstein met his Lustig (by chance or Divine Providence, take your pick) on the set of a Lipa Schmeltzer music video.
“I saw Menashe and he was this Charlie Chaplin-esque character on set,” said Weinstein. “He was so emotive with his hands, with his face. I was captivated by him; there was a sad clown aspect to him, something a little bit broken inside.”
“I knew immediately that we could make a film around who he was,” he said.
Weinstein chose to shoot in Borough Park over other ultra-Orthodox enclaves like Williamsburg or Monsey because of the diversity of its religious commmunity. “It’s authentic that people would have different accents, people would look differently, that there wouldn’t be one idea of what ultra-Orthodox was,” he said.
Lustig himself grew up in New Square, New York, about as dichotomous to diversity as one can get without taking a time machine back to pre-war Europe. “New Square is a one road in, one road out town, everyone is Skverer Jews,” said Weinstein, referring to the Chassidic sect that founded the community in 1954. “Menashe is one of the few people in the whole town who is more open-minded.”
Lustig married in London and when his wife passed away he came back to New Square with their young son, who is now 13. In the film, his son is played Ruben Niborski as a impish-looking but serious young man carrying the weight of his circumstances on his shoulders.
As a single parent myself, I said, there were a lot of relateable moments in the film. I confessed that I too have served my son cake for breakfast in a pinch, but not cola. “It’s different because you’re a mom, and a dad is different,” said Lustig. “A dad has much more… less…” He searched for the words for a moment. “There’s usually much less opportunity to understand what to give for a child.”
“A yiddishe mama, you know, a yiddishe mama is something…” He trails off again. “A mom is a mom. If you lose it, I feel for my son too, you can’t replace it. Usually, a dad tries to pull a child [up] to his level; a mom goes down to the level of a child.”
Weinstein observed that while there are gender-normative ideas of who a parent is in general society, in Lustig’s world those ideas “are amplified to the nth degree.” Weinstein’s goal was to make the character’s slip-ups as a single dad universal. “They’re not inherently bad, they’re just a father making mistakes,” he said.
Has Lustig’s son seen the movie? “If he wants to, maybe one day, but I’m not offering it,” he said with a chuckle.
We talked about how the film is unique in its focus on the parental bond between a an ultra-Orthodox father and son with the father in the role of caregiver. “Once you have a child, you get the feelings from Heaven you didn’t have before,” said Lustig. “You have laws in the Bible too that you can’t separate a sheep from the mother, it’s very brutal to take it away.”
Those verses talk about separating a child from its mother, though, not father or parents, I said. That focus on the mother-child bond is persistent in Jewish texts.
“Does a father not bleed?” offered Weinstein. He made a good point.
The film grazes—touches upon is too strong an expression—a few points of tension within this conservative religious society without it being gratuitous. “As soon as you become preachy, as soon as you try to say more than what you can say, that’s when you lose the audience and you lose the authenticity and you lose the drama,” said Weinstein.
“It was really important for me that this was just one man’s story. Obviously, you hear hints of the world,” he said, “little moments peek around, but that is honestly how Menashe would interact with the world if he was a single man. That’s kind of how I wanted it to be: here is his perspective, not the whole Chassidic world’s perspective.”
In “Menashe,” the audience enters a space where people’s lives are demarcated —sometimes comfortably, sometimes not, sometimes willingly, sometimes less so— by religious practice and the norms of ultra-Orthodox society. It is a credit to both the star and the filmmaker that the characters make the space they occupy and life’s challenges and joys feel relatable and familiar.
“Menashe” is rated PG for thematic elements and is playing now at the Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema in Maryland and Angelika Film Center Mosaic in Virginia.