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Why I Watched Menashe for Tisha b’Av

The all Yiddish film that premiered at Sundance – Menashe – opened this past weekend in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York.

Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein, Menashe is set in present-day Borough Park, Brooklyn, among Hasidim; and it employs non-professional actors from the community.

Yes, I realize it is weird to see a film about Hasidim that does not star Melanie Griffith or Renee Zellweger, but trust me – it works.

The film has received excellent reviews from The New York Times, Variety, The Los Angeles Times, The Economist, and nearly all the main film critics. It is a simple story of Menashe, a not-so-lucky, barely-employed widower, living alone in a simple, small, sparse apartment, who is attempting to regain custody of his ten year old son. His son must live with Menashe’s brother-in-law, since their rabbi forbids a child to be raised in a household without a mother present.

The character of Menashe is stubborn, and may be suffering with guilt and mourning. He has no wife, a not so nice home, not even nice dishes; the three things his rabbi says are needed for a happy life.

The New York Times said it was a comedy.

Really?

It is a comedy the same way that Cassavetes “A Woman Under The Influence” would be considered a comedy.

It isn’t. It is a Lamentation.

It is a story of faith and fatherhood, a story of a ne’er do well father who doesn’t leave the community in the face of his problems, but he stays and he adheres. And he prays and studies, and attempts to persevere given his limitations.

A good film for Tisha b’Av, especially since Eicha starts with a metaphor of the widow(er).

Below is the official trailer from A24, the film’s distributor.

And now for some spoilers
And now for some spoilers
And now for some spoilers

The film stars Menashe Lustig in the title role.

Weinstein, a documentary filmmaker, wanted to make a film close to home. Why travel worldwide to point a lens at a different community, when Borough Park is so close by?

He hooked up with Danny Finkelman, a Hasidic musician, choirmaster and videomaker, and a colleague of the Hasidic hitmaker and Yiddish popstar, Lipa Schmeltzer.

Through them, Weinstein, who was already growing out his beard, was introduced to Lipa’s brother-in-law, Menashe Lustig.

Lustig – who never entered a movie theater prior to 2017 – makes humorous YouTube short videos for other Hasidim to view. Weinstein was taken with Menashe’s spirit and stage presence, and decided to build a story around him.

It turns out that Menashe is a widower, who lost custody of his son… (but not by the order of his rebbe, as portrayed in the fictional film).

With this kernel of truth was born an idea; the script was built. Weinstein wrote it with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed (perhaps one of the few or the only Muslim screenwriters who has written a Yiddish film).

They wrote first in English, and then translated into Yiddish. ACtually, during the direction they would shoot in Yiddish, have a simultaneous translation into English for the crew, and do additional takes.

One of the translaters was another brother-in-law of Lipa and Menashe, the author Shulem Deen (who wrote a 2015 memoir on leaving his New Square, NY based Hasidic sect).

The scripts took shape and underwent several modifications. For example, when a good actor to play the father-in-law character was not found in auditions, that character was removed and the story changed.

Auditions were held, slowly.

Filming was done openly but not so loudly. There are several scenes where the camera seems a half a block away, providing the viewer with a look at the wider world of Borough Park. A scene with a beggar on a corner employed an actor to play the beggar, but the contributions he received from passers-by were real. (but not enough to crowdfund the film). Four different stores were used for a single grocery store, since the crew kept losing the hospitality of various shopowners over the production. The character of an older neighbor with a bacherlor-widower-proof kugel recipe was played by someone’s aunt. The role of the rabbi was played by a Brooklyn Hasidic cab driver who happens to actually be a rabbi. The 10 year old boy is played by an Israeli boy who is the son and grandson of famous Yiddish professors, who, although secular, teach their children Yiddish. He was recruited to play the role while his parents taught in Baltimore for a year.

SOME RELATED VIDEOS

Menashe Lustig – on Youtube

An interview with the Director

Lipa Schmelzer

A chat with Shulem Deen

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