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The Remarkable Humanism of “Menashe”

Alessio Franko
August 28, 2017

by Alessio Franko

Discussed in this essay: Menashe, a film by Joshua Z. Weinstein

WITHIN DAYS of moving to Borough Park, home to one of the largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City, I could tell that my neighbors had little interest in ever acknowledging my existence. I don't wear a kippah and I don't look typically Jewish -- an ironic effect of blended Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrakhi heritage. The first and perhaps still only khasidic adult in Borough Park to initiate a conversation with me was a broad-shouldered, gray-bearded man in a Yiddish supermarket. After staring at me in disbelief, he shook my hand and asked me if I was Jewish. When I told him that I was, his eyes almost shot right out of his head. As a proud, non-Orthodox Jew at home in Borough Park, I was an exception to every category he had at his fingertips.

Joshua Z. Weinstein’s new film Menashe digs into the question of what makes Orthodox spaces short-circuit in cases of exception. A tender drama based on the true story of its local Borough Park star, Menashe Lustig, Menashe follows a widowed khasidic father's bid to secure custody of his only son, taken away from him according to Orthodox custom. Menashe is an exception within the American film industry, where the parochial aesthetics and obscure subject matter inherent in a story about Orthodox Judaism are considered commercial liabilities. Filmed surreptitiously on location in Borough Park with a nearly-all-khasidic amateur cast performing in Yiddish, it represents a preponderance of exceptions within the culturally insulated community there. And Lustig (whose last name, I have to point out, means "funny" in German) is himself highly exceptional within khasidism, his personal YouTube page a trove of Jewish sketch comedy and Yiddish web series episodes. Though the film's trajectory for his character (also named Menashe) diverges substantially from Lustig’s real-life custody episodes, the script is a tailor-made showcase of Lustig’s versatile talent and antic humor.

Lustig is in good company, playing off a cast that even the most discerning viewer would mistake for an extensively trained ensemble. Working within classic narrative structure, Weinstein and writers Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed nevertheless steer clear of staid choices. While it is the rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) who decrees that Menashe must remarry in order to live with his son Rieven (Ruben Nidorski), the rabbi is not Menashe’s primary antagonist. It is instead Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), the brother-in-law with whom Rieven has been sent to live, who resists Menashe at every turn. The tension between these two very different men adds a level of moral complexity, unshackles the rabbi from the finger-wagging stereotype, and makes the story that much more universal.

IT DOESN'T SEEM RIGHT to call Menashe a comedy because virtually all of the laughs come from Menashe himself. He is an entertainer through and through, and the other characters are as much his audience as we are. As Menashe teaches his son how to make animal noises while the other men study Torah, we realize that the essence of his personality stands in direct opposition to the ideals of his community -- ideals that stick-in-the-mud Eizik manifests to perfection. Menashe is repeatedly pelted with the accusation that his actions and choices show narishkayt, foolishness. There is no gray area in Borough Park. You’re either a serious man or a fool, a mentsh or a shlimazl, and that perception can be nigh impossible to change. Whatever becomes of Menashe the character, however, we can still revel in knowing that the real-life Lustig has found a community that celebrates rather than derides his clowning.

The ending is the only element of the film that arguably does not satisfy. Menashe finally makes a choice within the rabbi’s parameters, but the dissonance between Menashe's light-hearted nature and his world's emphasis on seriousness goes unresolved. As much as I wanted to see Weinstein advance a solution to this problem, his film seems to be reaping the benefits of remaining open-ended. I caught my screening of Menashe at the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan, where, far from the usual cinephile clientele, the lobby was packed with people from across the Conservadox spectrum. Filing out of the prior showing, they were embroiled in contentious but good-faith discussion of the film. Hearing traditionalist Jews, with whom I have never sat in a movie theater, engage with Sundance fare melted me -- not only is genuine exchange between polarized Jewish movements possible, but art may act as the bridge between them.

Menashe’s broad appeal lies in its refusal to reduce its protagonist to any of his identity's constituent parts. Let's not let the laziness of the tagline, "There's nothing orthodox about him," distract us from how it's also exactly wrong. Menashe prays before bed, goes to Torah study, and gets plastered on Shabbes like he’s supposed to. When he disagrees with the rabbi, he doesn't take his son and skip town, but rather tries to work within the system to persuade the rabbi to reconsider. Menashe is not an outsider, but an exception. Exceptions pose a crucial research problem to the writer of a screenplay about Orthodox Judaism. To realistically depict an Orthodox community, the writer must contend with an abundance of exceptions, yet each exception she details is a potential distraction from establishing and developing the rigid norms that determine what the exceptions are in the first place.

Weinstein, Lipschultz, and Syeed’s script overcomes this paradox by acknowledging that norms and exceptions are precisely not at odds, but codependent. On a date with him, a suitor diagnoses Menashe's hesitance to find a new mother for his son as the typical result of being coddled by his own Jewish mother. Systems, she suggests, breed their own delinquents. In a vital but lightning-quick moment, Eizik’s teenage daughter threatens to go to college with or without the rabbi’s blessing. Her mother naturally waves it off as narishkayt, as she retreats to the master bedroom. Menashe and Eizik's daughter create conflict in their khasidic world, but then again, is conflict itself exceptional, in any community? Easy to mistake for a put-down of khasidic life, Menashe’s depiction of the constant inner turmoil of Borough Park is part of what makes it such a humanizing portrait.

With so many more themes and moments left worthy of discussion, I can only end with an endorsement: see Menashe for yourself. It’s on its way to becoming canonical Jewish viewing. Coming from a committed background in documentary, Weinstein’s instinct to make Menashe his first fiction film was a stroke of brilliance. Whereas so many documentaries on khasidism either dwell on iconoclasts or erase them, Menashe finds in fiction the humanistic tools needed to put them in context with one another. Weinstein is a confident and competent enough ethnographer that he does not need to show you the real in order to convey the truth. Yet groundbreaking as it may be, a film is still a film. The denizens of Borough Park are unlikely to know about the movie made in their midst, and far less likely to indulge in the secular pleasure of its consumption. But should any of my former neighbors catch this flick, they may well find a lot of meaning in it. To think otherwise would be narishkayt.

Alessio Franko, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is pursuing a Master's in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. He trained as an actor at HB Studios in his hometown of New York City and earned his Bachelor's in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.