‘Menashe,’ a Yiddish movie with a big heart

You quickly get over the novelty of the fact that its characters are speaking Yiddish and get right into the story.

MENASHE LUSTIG (left) and Ruben Niborski. (Joshua Z Weinstein) (photo credit: Courtesy)
MENASHE LUSTIG (left) and Ruben Niborski. (Joshua Z Weinstein)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Joshua Z Weinstein’s Menashe, a contemporary, Yiddish-language film, tells the story of its eponymous hero, a Hassidic widower in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn. It’s a touching and nuanced film, and so skillfully made that you quickly get over the novelty of the fact that its characters are speaking Yiddish and get right into the story.
Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is struggling to hold down a job at a grocery store and to raise his son (Ruben Niborski), who has gone to live with Menashe’s wealthy but judgmental former brother-in-law. Their rabbi says the boy can only move back home after Menashe takes a new wife, but Menashe doesn’t feel ready. It isn’t that he was so much in love with his late wife – it turns out they didn’t have a very good relationship – but that he’s having such a hard time keeping himself together that he doesn’t have much energy left. Although he grumbles, he won’t openly defy his rabbi, and keeps going on awkward dates. He can’t quite follow the rules and he can’t quite rebel.
It’s a rare glimpse into the day-to-day life of the ultra-Orthodox community in New York. Often, when we look at them from the outside, all we notice is the religious devotion. But the film paints a complex portrait of a community like any other, where people struggle to earn money, run businesses, and worry about status.
In the course of the movie, everything that can go wrong for Menashe does go wrong, and it often goes wrong in front of his son, the one person he loves and whose respect he desperately craves. But for all his misfortunes, Menashe is an extremely winning character, and you root for him even though he is often his own worst enemy.
The movie, which is based on Lustig’s personal story, is one we have not seen before, about an ultra-Orthodox man who has to fight for his son. There have been numerous books and films about women who rebel against rabbinical authority and leave the community, struggling to hold on to custody of their children.
But the idea that a man might face a parallel struggle is new.
This widower doesn’t consciously defy the authorities, but he is a confused, lonely and somewhat childish man and he can never quite do the right thing to impress those with power. The film is essentially a character study of Menashe, and it’s a touching portrait.
The director, a documentary filmmaker who has also worked as a director of photography, did not know Yiddish when he started the film and did not grow up in the ultra-Orthodox world, but became fascinated with Brooklyn’s haredim. Weinstein had two co-writers on the film, Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, a director who has made such films as Valley of Saints, and who may well be the first Muslim to write a Yiddish movie.
They wrote in English and had the script translated into Yiddish.
I can’t say anything about quality of the Yiddish dialogue since I don’t speak the language at all, but the whole script is all in Yiddish, except for a few lines of English dialogue for Menashe and the Latino guys who work with him at the grocery. There have been few modern American films with significant Yiddish dialogue, among them Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street (1975), the prologue to the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009) and the 2014 Canadian film Felix & Meira, which was partly in Yiddish and which starred Israeli actress Hadas Yaron. On Israeli television, of course, there’s Shtisel, much of which is in Yiddish. It’s interesting that Yiddish film is getting a revival of sorts.
has been shown around the world, including at the Berlinale, Sundance, and the New Directors New Films festival in March in New York. It has won several awards around the world, including from the National Board of Review, USA, which named it one of the top 10 independent movies of the year.
But audiences will enjoy the movie for its story and its charming hero rather than because it’s in Yiddish.
With Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Falkowitz.
Hebrew title: Menashe. 82 minutes. In Yiddish, check with theaters for subtitle information.