Just last week, on one of the busiest stretches of the FDR, my tire blew out and my car listed to the left side. I like to think of myself as an independent woman, but when it comes to car mechanics and sudden perforations, I revert to helpless hysterics. I eased the car onto the nearest ramp off the highway, and limped onto a desolate, run-down Manhattan street. I took a deep breath, and, clutching my cellphone, did what any other God-fearing woman from Borough Park would do: I called Chaverim.
The chesed (benevolent) organization is an ad-hoc, free, AAA-like emergency service for stranded motorists, operating mostly in Brooklyn. “I will really try to get someone to you,” the calm dispatcher told me, “although we normally don’t serve Manhattan.”
Within a half hour, a bearded chasid was at my side, calmed me down and proceeded to change my tire with enviable efficiency. When I offered him a tip, he demurred, saying the service was free: a chesed. I wasn’t surprised. Chaverim is just one of dozens of diverse organizations thriving in Brooklyn, whose sole mandate is to help other Jews.
But to watch “Menashe” — a darling of the Sundance Festival and gaining momentum in theaters around the country (currently playing at the Angelika Film Center) — is to see an entirely different world depicted from the one I know and experience every day. The chasidim portrayed in the movie are stern and mean-spirited, devoid of compassion and pity. They treat Menashe — the film’s main character who is a cross between a schlimazel and a schlemiel — with contempt and harshness, this despite the fact that he is a down-on-his-luck widower who fails at every single enterprise he attempts. In the world I know, such a pathetic figure would elicit only pity. But in the film, all Menashe seems to prompt is disdain.
Even worse than the characterization of chasidim in the film is the basic premise upon which it is predicated. Its proposition is not only flawed, but fallacious. Apparently in the world which Menashe inhabits, chasidic society prohibits widowers from raising their own children, wresting them away. Whether this has been determined by the writer/director to be a halacha (Jewish law), minhag (tradition) or simple community practice is unclear, but what is clear is that this thesis is entirely untrue. There is absolutely no source for this outlandish idea, neither in Jewish law nor communal customs. I have spoken with various sages in the chasidic community, and they are baffled by the very idea that propels the director’s vehicle: Family is foremost in Borough Park. Widows and widowers are treated with particular empathy, warmth and kindness, and everything is done to ensure the safety and happiness of the children, with significant funds frequently raised to ensure the smooth functioning of the bereaved home. But you would never know any of these things from “Menashe.”
I am sorry to say that there is not one positive chasidic character in the film. The only likable characters are the Hispanic workers at the supermarket where Menashe is employed. Menashe’s in-laws are quite merciless towards him, and he himself demonstrates his own streak of cruelty when he buys a baby chicken for his young son to play with, and then announces that one day it will make a “good chicken soup” for them to eat.
In addition to the negative portraiture of the characters, Borough Park is also distorted unjustly. The camera lens is constantly pointed at the fringes of the community where poverty lingers; the apartments are ugly and trash litters its streets. The vaunted mansions of Borough Park, even the more modest but well-kept homes, are never glimpsed in “Menashe.” And the camera lens pans on but never focuses on the neighborhood’s upscale, elegant Manhattan-modeled supermarkets and clothing stores.
Many years ago, I paid a shiva call to a wealthy traditional family in Long Island, and was surprised to meet a family member I had never even known existed: a pleasant, good-natured son with a mild intellectual disability. When I got up to leave, he asked if I lived in Borough Park, and if so, could he get a ride with me. Though he was dressed in “modern” garb, he explained that he lived there.
“I love Boro Park,” he beamed. “Everyone is so nice to me. All the chasidim take care of me. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
Inside the car, I invited him to my home for a Shabbos meal, and asked when he might be available next. “Oh, sorry,” he said, with a bright smile on his face. “I’m booked for the rest of this year.”
This is the Borough Park I know; certainly not the Borough Park depicted in “Menashe.” Like any other community, it has its warts and flaws, but overall, it is a community flowing with unparalleled kindness and goodness, and, in these aspects, it has no peer. But after watching “Menashe,” the secular visitor to this world would have no sense of its true dimensions. And that is both a shame and a great loss to those Jews who wish to better understand what they perceive to be the closed society of Brooklyn. As one woman said to me as we both exited the movie theater after watching the film: “Did you recognize any of these parts of Borough Park? I didn’t. Would you want to be part of this world? I wouldn’t. Is this a true portrait? Absolutely not.”