Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein’s debut film Fill the Void (2012) and her follow-up The Wedding Plan (2016) take the viewer into the hidden world of Hasidic Jewish communities in Israel. Menashe, documentary filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein’s first narrative feature, does something similar, with a twist: The Hasidic community depicted here is located not in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, but in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
For many members of the community, that may not matter much. Hasidic Judaism, like Haredi (or ultra-Orthodox, as it’s sometimes controversially called) Judaism generally, is a closed-off world whose members sweepingly reject much of modern secular culture. They may speak Yiddish rather than Hebrew, but the Hasidic ideal does not necessarily look very different in Brooklyn than in Tel Aviv.
Then again, not everyone realizes the ideal to the same extent. Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), the title character’s brother-in-law, and the Ruv or local rabbi (Meyer Schwartz), are characters that could exist in one of Burshtein’s Israeli films, or in a film about Haredi Jews set almost anywhere, in any decade in the last 50 years.
But Menashe himself is a character who feels like he makes sense only in America, and perhaps specifically in the New York area. He’s inspired by the actor who plays him, Menashe Lustig, who was born and raised in the Hasidic village of New Square in Ramapo, New York, about one hour north of Brooklyn.
It has been jokingly suggested that all Americans are Protestants — even Catholics, atheists and Jews. There’s a meaningful insight there, although even as a joke it’s an overstatement, and insular communities like the Hasidim manage to resist American cultural identity far more than most. Menashe is different, though I wouldn’t want to suggest that he is a Protestant Hasid. It would be fair to say he’s a bit of a resister or nonconformist, if not quite a rebel.
On the street, among other Hasidic men in their long black coats and brimmed hats, Menashe looks schlumpy: his head covered only by a kippah (or yarmulke); dangling tzitzit (prayer shawl fringes) exposed by his lack of a coat over his husky frame. He does his morning ablutions when there’s water in the vessel under his bed, which there isn’t always.
Readers old enough to remember Laverne & Shirley will remember the Yiddish-American hopscotch chant at the start of each episode that includes “Schlemiel! Schlimazel!” A schlimazel is unlucky; a schlemiel is a bungler. A Yiddish quip differentiates them as follows: A schlemiel is the guy always spilling his soup; a schlimazel is the one the soup lands on.
Needless to say, the two tendencies are not exclusive, and the interplay between schlimazel and schlemiel plays out with poignant persuasiveness in Menashe’s life. Menashe is the guy who shows up late for his job at a kosher market, makes an expensive mistake that ruins his boss’ day, and then asks the boss if he can still borrow some money. Not everything that happens to Menashe is his fault, but it doesn’t seem coincidental that it always happens to him.
Like all his peers, Menashe accepts the Ruv’s word as law, though it comes with a deep personal cost. Menashe’s wife Leah died the year before, and until he remarries Menashe has been deemed by the Ruv to be an unfit parent. His 10-year-old son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), is thus in the care of Menashe’s brother-in-law Eizik, a successful family man with a low opinion of Menashe.
Menashe resents all this, yet he is recalcitrantly in no hurry to remarry. He dutifully has dinner with a widow chosen by a matchmaker and listens skeptically as she shakes her head about another local rabbi who scandalously permits women to drive. “It’s just not normal,” she says confidingly, expecting agreement. When Menashe wonders whether the four months since her husband died are enough for her, the widow asks what else there is in life besides marriage and kids.
However it has happened, Menashe has become too American for these ideas — much to the reasonable irritation of the widow wasting an evening with a less-than-eligible man. She diagnoses in him a failing common in Hasidic men: “Your mothers spoil you; then your wives take over.” This, too, may contain an element of truth, even if being spoiled seems to be the last thing Menashe wants.
Burshtein’s marriage-themed films Fill the Void and The Wedding Plan offer intentionally positive portrayals of Haredi culture from a filmmaker who embraces that world. Weinstein is a secular Jew as well as a documentarian, and his perspective, while empathic, is also detached. Menashe’s slightly outsider status provides a bridge to the audience, allowing us to see his world through his eyes — but, unexpectedly, we also find ourselves regarding Menashe through the eyes of his peers.
Menashe and that widow are obviously not soulmates, and a marriage between them would not be the stuff of romance novels. Yet Menashe’s quality of life would certainly improve, and they would likely have more children, which would improve her life satisfaction as well. We have no reason to doubt that the matchmaker knew her clientele well enough not to be disastrously wrong in pairing them. This is not an American idea of marriage, but is it such a bad one?
The Ruv’s verdict that Menashe’s single status disqualifies him from raising Rieven may seem harsh and intrusive, but the rebbe has the best interests of both father and son at heart — and as the film unfolds it’s hard to deny that he has a point. A man who might not have a better breakfast on hand than cake and cola might love his son dearly, and their relationship might be vital to them both, but can he be a solo parent?
The real Menashe Lustig, the inspiration for the movie character, is perhaps not quite the schlemiel he plays onscreen. He really is a widowed semi-maverick who works in a kosher market, and his son really is being raised by another family — but Lustig has also found some success as a comedian on YouTube, which one can’t imagine of his fictional counterpart.
Lustig’s performance blends confident comic chops with an undercurrent of stubborn pride and angry desperation. As good as he is, the film depends equally on young Niborski, whose infectious grin and thoughtful gaze would pierce any parent’s heart.
This father-son relationship, both heartwarming and heartbreaking, is the center of the film. Their mutual affection is obvious, and they enjoy each other’s company, but already Rieven can see the justice in his uncle’s low opinion of his father — and Menashe can see that he sees it, even if they both pretend otherwise.
The story is set during a privileged week in which Menashe makes a special plea to assume the double duties of a father and bereaved husband, just to prove to Ruv and to Eizik that he can mensch up in a pinch.
Deeply skeptical of this plan, Eizik would much prefer to handle things himself and spare everyone the consequences of Menashe’s blundering. Sometimes, though, even schlemiels and schlimazels must be given the chance to succeed or fail on their own.
Although a sense of fatalism hangs over the film, it is not without glimpses of hope. Can Menashe turn things around? An ambiguous moment involving a bathtub suggests that Menashe may hover between despair and renewal. Jewish viewers might think here of a mikveh immersion ritual; a Christian viewer may be reminded of baptism, if only in the generic way in which all immersion rituals rely on the same primal symbolism. The significant shot that follows suggests that Menashe may be more open to changing in at least some ways than earlier scenes would suggest.
It is an intriguing paradox that, the more culturally specific a story is, and the more specific its characters, the more universal its power and appeal often turn out to be. This is the case with Menashe, a film that both opens a door to a peculiar world and also, not in spite of but because of its peculiarity, draws us in.
Caveat Spectator: Difficult family situations. Nothing objectionable, but young kids won’t stay with the story.