‘Menashe’ effectively voices a familiar struggle in an unfamiliar environment
Directed by: Joshua Z. Weinstein
Written by: Joshua Z. Weinstein, Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed
Starring: Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Meyer Schwartz, and Yoel Weisshaus
“Menashe” – “You must find a new wife. She will run your household. She’ll keep your home clean. It will be a fine, pious home.” - Rabbi Yaakov (Meyer Schwartz)
Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a widower who lost his wife, Leah, about a year ago. He lives alone in his Brooklyn, NY apartment but does not urgently feel the need to remarry. Unfortunately, his rabbi (Schwartz) says that he must marry again in order to be reunited with his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski).
You see, Menashe is a Hasidic Jewish man, and traditions state that Rieven needs to live in a two-parent household, or he will be kicked out of school. Hence, Menashe’s conundrum is a classic tale of one person fighting against the system, but his story is told in an unfamiliar setting in director Joshua Z. Weinstein’s feature film, “Menashe”.
From the first moments of “Menashe”, one notices the picture’s documentary feel, but that should be no surprise. Over the past 12 years, Weinstein has directed, written and produced documentaries, and his solid foundation in this space lends itself to this movie. He filmed on location in Borough Park, where many speak Yiddish and maintain long-established customs, and Weinstein’s actors – including Lustig – have never spent time in front of a movie camera.
In Borough Park, it is not uncommon to see the streets occupied with men wearing black hats and jackets and sporting long side locks of hair, and women managing their children and covering their hair with scarves. In fact, in a recent interview, Weinstein said that in this particular location, Hasidic men walk on one side of the street and women on the other. Within the movie’s 82-minute runtime, Weinstein certainly carries his camera on the Brooklyn streets but also into apartments and small rooms, as he closely follows Menashe’s struggles. His struggle to be his own man, to refrain from always bowing towards customs, to not wear a hat and jacket, and to date or marry when he wishes. The mores in his world, however, are very, very strong, and any significant resistance against them will result in paying some kind of price.
At the moment, the biggest price is that Rieven must live with Menashe’s ex-brother-in-law, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), and his family, and this is a most painful consequence for our protagonist. Through quiet – and sometimes not so quiet – daily conversations with Eizik, his boss, a scheduled blind date, and others, the film does an excellent job of framing Menashe as a misfit, someone on the outside looking in. Menashe unfortunately does not help himself either, when he always seems to run 30 minutes late for everything and is the direct cause of both minor and major life screw-ups. He is a loveable, kind-hearted human being, but one who does not look out for himself and is surrounded by others who pounce on his every mistake.
To quote Bob Seger, Menashe is “running against the wind” at nearly every life turn. One completely curious turn throughout the picture is that everyone speaks Yiddish, which, of course, contributes to Weinstein’s documentary feel, but he leaves one seminal moment in which Menashe breaks into English in a completely heartfelt scene.
This is a small moment with grand ideas in a small movie with big, sweeping themes, and “Menashe” resonates with its one man versus the system conflict, as it meshes with an organic insider’s view into unknown spaces. Menashe’s ultimate fate within his space truly feels unknown until the film’s final few minutes. He may be flawed, but with or without a wife, Menashe is a worthy underdog and an amiable soul.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.