In “Menashe,” which opened at the end of July, director Joshua Z Weinstein has delicately crafted a work that emanates a rarely seen authenticity, tenderness, and depth — all characteristics sadly lacking in other mainstream films about chasidic Jews and their communities.
A chasidic father named Menashe, who works long hours in a small grocery store in Brooklyn, struggling to make ends meet, has lost his young wife Lea to illness. Their only child, Rieven, an adolescent, also is suffering from the death of his beloved mother. Aizek, Menashe’s former brother-in-law and Rieven’s uncle, is battling the father and son. Aizek is a successful, arrogant property owner who seeks custody of the boy. He wants to raise him in his own family.
This heart-wrenching triangulated scenario could play out anywhere. But this is Borough Park, home to many chasidic groups. It is a world unknown to — and also misunderstood and misjudged by — many. Filmed on location, this film, an engrossing exploration of love, grief and devotion pulses to the heartbeat of the chasidic community and its many nuances.
In Menashe’s specific community, children must be brought up in a home with a mother. That means that after his wife’s death, Menashe faces some choices. He must find a wife, or give up his son, or violate the community’s tradition.
In the film, spoken almost entirely in Yiddish (with English subtitles), Weinstein sheds layer after layer, and reveals a profound humanity.
The real-life story of the unpretentious Menashe Lustig, who loosely portrays himself in the film, inspired this main character. Lustig is a grocer from New Square, in New York’s Rockland County. All the actors except Menashe’s Hispanic co-workers are chasidim, most of whom have chosen to remain unnamed in the credits. Rieven is played by a boy from London who was in this country learning in an American yeshiva. The casting choices are instrumental to the authenticity.
In the film, as Lea’s first yahrzeit approaches, the conflict over custody heats up. It’s at the same time as Lag B’Omer and is framed by the swirling, towering flames of the night’s holidays street bonfires, around which the chasidim have gathered to celebrate, dance, and sing.
Menashe is defiant. He feels that he can be responsible for his son. But the harder he tries to prove his worthiness, the more things go wrong, and the more rebuke and humiliation the principled Menashe is subjected to. We empathize with him.
Rieven’s simple affection for his father provides Menashe with some respite from all these pressures, and his adoring son’s candor and innocence may be all the struggling father needs to be able to reflect, and to become the parent for which his son is longing.
Menashe’s humble walk-up apartment, where Rieven, the ruv (the communal religious leader), Aizek, and several other men have come to share in the yahrzeit meal, complete with “bachelor-proof kugel,” provides the setting for the dramatic climactic scene. Shot up close and personal, and crisply edited, the scene masterfully evokes the tension — and high stakes — of this meal. With humor and drama, the community has its proudest moment.
From the brilliant opening scene — a dispute over the sale of a head of lettuce in the grocery store where Menashe works — to the faint sunrays illuminating the early morning netilas yadayim (ritual hand-washing), to a wordless sunset shared by father and son in the park, the camera’s deft touch pulls us into story after story. Weinstein calls these “micro-moments.”
“I think the whole film is like that,” the director said. “How does a small moment tell a big story?”
The many local characters emanate genuineness and a strong on-screen presence. Aware of the challenges chasidim face today, Weinstein says he understands that when problems happen, “it’s so easy to leave. I wanted to make a character that by definition never even thought about leaving.”
Weinstein said that the goal of the actor who plays Rieven, Ruben Niborski, “wasn’t to be an actor. He was just a regular boy who was humble, polite and nice, and had no pretenses.”
Lustig and Niborski didn’t know each other when the filming began, so bridging that emotional distance within the film’s storyline comes across as real. “I told [Weinstein] that if you put the clothes of my son on [Niborski], he looks like my son!” Lustig said. “The child feels to me very close.”
Soulful music by Zusha, the New York-based, Teaneck-rooted chasidic folk and jazz band, vitalizes “Menashe” with modern wordless niggunim. The searing melody of a solo violin, scored by Aaron Martin and Dag Rosenqvist, adds color and commentary throughout the film and heightens the mesmerizing closing scene.
When I ask how Weinstein chose the ending, Lustig doesn’t hesitate to chime in. “My answer is simple — that that’s a real story,” he said. “And the story will continue.”