Weinstein's Menashe is a universally relevant Hasid trip

By Jim Slotek

Despite being set in a distinct, almost impenetrably closed social circle – Brooklyn’s Borough Park Hasidic Jewish community – Joshua Z Weinstein’s Menashe is a touching story with universal themes.

Touted as the first feature film in decades to be shot entirely in Yiddish, it’s a story of being unable to make your personality fit in a world of hard rules and expected proper behavior.

The likeable Menashe (neophyte actor Menashe Lustig, on whose life the story is partly based) is a bad Jew, at least by the standards of the Orthodox.

Lustig and Niborski: the non-courtship of Rieven's father

Lustig and Niborski: the non-courtship of Rieven's father

He is seldom seen wearing the traditional hat and coat. On the death of his wife, he resists all attempts by his rabbi and others to arrange a marriage – even though this costs him custody of his beloved son Rieven (Ruben Niborski), who must live with his judgmental aunt and uncle by community and rabbinical dictate. (We follow along on one date, where a no-nonsense woman, who’d assumed their nuptials were a done-deal even before they'd met, gives him an angry lecture about Orthodox men being ruined by their mothers).

As we meet him, Menashe is pretty much a pariah on these grounds, though there are other bad Jews around (to Menashe’s distress, his boss, the manager of the kosher supermarket where he works, refuses to wash the lettuce – because meh, who’ll notice?).

There is plenty of dry humour that fits perfectly with Menashe’s world. To prove he can make single-fatherhood work, he insists on hosting a memorial for his late wife at his apartment, and convinces a dubious neighbour to teach him to bake kugel. “Well, they say even bears can learn to dance,” she says with a shrug.

To extend the metaphor, Menashe never quite learns to dance. The humour aside, this is not a comedy per se, but a gently-heartbreaking story about a human conundrum. In the movie’s only scene in English, Menashe shares malt liquor with a couple of the supermarket’s Latino employees, who fail to understand why his single status hasn’t made him a free man. But even if the loss of his son wasn’t at stake, the impression is that Menashe was raised so tightly by his community, that he would be bereft if he left it – no matter how miserable he finds living in it.

Weinstein, best known as a documentarian (I Beat Mike Tyson), brings an attention to detail that seamlessly tells side stories (including a scene, unrelated to the narrative, of a Hasidic panhandler who only begs from other Jews). The light is natural, and often dark in interior scenes. And the camera-work is guerilla-style, the better to capture everyday  Brooklynites going about their lives.

Most of the characters are convincing non-actors (some of whom, we’re told, had never even seen a movie before). Besides Lustig, whose characterization of Menashe is robust and complete, two who stand out are the young Niborski (whose Rieven is torn between believing what others say about his dad, and the natural love he feels for him), and Meyer Schwartz, whose rabbi is a gentle soul who instinctively seems to know how hard Menashe is trying. Consequently, he tows a hard line with a gentle hand.

Menashe is no three-act film with a happy ending. It is a naturalistic, gentle, light tragedy - perhaps in perfect sync with the glass-half-full philosophic approach of storyteller/playwright Sholem Aleichem, “things could always be worse.”

Menashe, directed by Joshua Z Weinstein. Starring Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski. Opens Friday, August 11 in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Jim Slotek

is a former Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special (the NHL Awards). Prior to the Sun, he worked at the Ottawa Citizen as an entertainment reporter.