It was the nighttime fires of Lag B’Omer, flames licking the darkening skies over Borough Park, that convinced Joshua Z. Weinstein he had to make a movie about chasidim.
A filmmaker with a documentarian’s eye, and ear, for “authenticity,” he had wandered through the heart of chasidic Brooklyn contemplating his storyline, coming upon scenes of thousands of black-hatted and black-suited Jews dancing around the fires. He was intrigued by the joy of chasidic camaraderie in shuls and living rooms, the storytelling, the celebrations — “men were drinking, singing loud songs,” their handclaps keeping time.
“All those moments,” Weinstein told us, “were why I wanted to make this film,” he said of “Menashe” — to capture “what I’d never before seen in cinema.”
The result of his wanderings is a thoroughly New York story, filmed in the streets and walk-ups of Borough Park and — in that rarest of touches — in the native Yiddish of its chasidic residents. “Menashe,” which opens here on July 28 after a successful showing earlier in the year at the Sundance Film Festival, is thought to be the first Yiddish feature film since “The Dybbuk” and “Tevye” in the late 1930s. “Menashe” is the story of a “holy shlepper,” a somehow noble chasidic widower in his 30s struggling to raise a son on his own — against the advice of his well-meaning but intrusive community. And while it is filled with Jewish specificity, Weinstein sees the film in more universal terms.
“To me, the film is about a man overcoming his grief and coming to terms with himself, with the sadness in his life,” Weinstein says. “This is not a Jewish film. It’s a film about Jews.” Like all great foreign-language films, one quickly gets beyond language to enter the realm of the soul. “I was inspired by ‘The Bicycle Thief,’” Vittoria De Sica’s 1948 classic, Weinstein says.
“You can’t help but see parallels between the movies. During that time of post-war Italy, people had incredible difficulties,” but the film is rooted in the simplicity of “the loss of a bicycle. In ‘The Bicycle Thief,’ we see the subtext and context of a father trying to support his family — with the bicycle as a metaphor for everything in his life. What we’ve tried to do [with “Menashe”] is use the simplicity of a single idea,” the question of whether a fellow, who fails more often than not, can prove his worth to those who doubt him.
The story unfolds in a series of innocent scenes: Menashe balances a baby chick on his head to amuse his son Rieven; the rav’s merciful blessing for Menashe, and praising Menashe’s burnt kugel to defuse the mockery; Rieven’s tender lullaby that he sings on his mother’s yahrtzeit — fleeting moments that mean little to anyone else, said Weinstein, but “mean everything to the character.”
Menashe is played by Menashe Lustig, 38, a Skverer chasid with no acting experience other than humorous postings on YouTube. Lustig’s own true experience as a working-man widower whose young son went to live with others inspired Weinstein to let the framework of Lustig’s story become the film’s narrative arc.
It takes a village to raise a child, but what if the village itself is the problem?
An overweight, kosher supermarket clerk and mopper of floors, Menashe resists pressure to remarry, particularly when marriage is seen as less for love than to create a normative home for Rieven, whom Menashe calls “my only consolation.” Menashe’s first marriage, an arranged one, left him more lonely than satisfied, and the idea of a second marriage leaves him wary, a hesitation that confuses and even disturbs his chasidic community. It takes a village to raise a child, but what if the village itself is the problem? Menashe resists the idea that a wife (any wife) is his only shot at becoming an ehrliche Yid, a man whose dignity matches his piety. On one date, Menashe bluntly admits his lack of enthusiasm to a middle-aged widow, and she in turn bluntly admits her bitter assessment of chasidic men. Perhaps the next “gilgul” (incarnation) might bring romantic kindness to these lonely and homely mourners.
Eizik, the austere and well-to-do brother of Menashe’s late wife, wasn’t impressed by how Menashe took care of his dying wife, and Eizik is not impressed with Menashe now. Eizik convinces their “ruv” that Rieven (played with exquisite subtlety and loveliness by Ruben Niborski) would be better off living with Eizik’s family. Rieven enjoys being with his father, with Menashe’s many jokey moments, but nevertheless appreciates Eizik’s stability. Rieven wishes his father would wear a dignified chasidic hat and coat, even on weekdays, rather than his more workaday black vest over a yellowed white shirt and woolen tzitzis.
The ruv presents Menashe with holy quotes on the stabilizing benefits of a wife. On the other hand, are only scholars and businessmen entitled to happiness? Is a shlepper, coming home after a night shift to a small, bare and dark apartment, not entitled to raise his own son? So what if the father can’t cook or sends Rieven off in the morning with a hurried breakfast of Coca-Cola and cake — and love?
Menashe gets Rieven to laugh, but no one gets Menashe to laugh except the two Hispanic workers who share nothing with him but a common humanity and beer in the back room of the grocery; their time together onscreen provides the film’s only non-Yiddish moments.
Weinstein, who grew up Conservative going to Solomon Schechter schools in Morristown, N.J., entered Borough Park without a plot or much of a plan, just with a pen and pad, and a willingness to listen to stories. The English script was translated for the actors, who in turn were allowed to improvise, and who did so seamlessly. Shulem Deen, author of “All Who Go Do Not Return,” a memoir of his split from the Skverer community in which he was reared, was brought in as a script consultant.
To reassure the chasidic actors that everything in the script would be “kosher,” one “Menashe” producer, Daniel Finkelman, a Lubavitcher who produced videos for the chasidic singer Lipa Schmeltzer, vouched that the film would be “appropriate,” said Weinstein, who said he tried to “take each character at face value.” At no point does anyone complain about chasidic life. Menashe resists, but never rebels. Menashe may be an accident waiting to happen, but he has a majesty as much as anyone else when he davens, opens a sacred text, goes to mikvah or whispers his bedside prayer. At the same time, Weinstein was not particularly interested in a chasidic travelogue; there are no depictions of Shabbos, major holidays or Jewish weddings. After all, chasidic life is distinguished by its dailyness.
“I’ve always been fascinated by New York stories. And what’s iconic about New York? The Empire State Building and chasidic Jews. They have stories that have never been told before.” – Weinstein
Needless to say, producers and movie studios were wary of writing a big check for a director’s first narrative film, in Yiddish, no less, about a tzitzis-wearing food clerk obsessed with his child — though that describes Tevye, too. Weinstein paid out of pocket for the cost of filming the early scenes, and using them as a sampler, cobbled together some funding. After “Menashe” was nominated for prizes in several film festivals, support for the film mushroomed. Chris Columbus, director of two “Harry Potter” films, as well as “Home Alone,” “Lost in New York” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” signed on as executive producer. Academy Award-winner Marisa Tomei came aboard with off-screen support. As with all great art, the particular is more universal than is often supposed.
“I’ve always been fascinated by New York stories,” Weinstein told us, “and what’s iconic about New York? The Empire State Building and chasidic Jews. They have stories that have never been told before.” He didn’t want a “pretty” film; “I tried to make it look lived-in.” He loved shooting scenes from across the street, “feeling the cars going by, all the people on the street, what people love about New York City films.
“I wanted authenticity, both visually and with language,” Weinstein says, leading the film to be shot on location. And “I knew from the very beginning that this had to be in Yiddish.”