Menashe Lustig (Menashe), director Joshua Z. Weinstein and Ruben Niborski (Rieven). (photo by Federica Valabrega courtesy of Mongrel Media)
On a sidewalk crowded with people moving at the pace of a typical New York City day, nobody stands out. Eventually, a man appears in the back of the frame who gradually attracts our attention. There’s nothing extraordinary about him except he’s a bulky man, and he’s labouring more than anyone else in the summer heat. He’s wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, black vest and tzitzit, and our initial impression is of an overgrown child. It’s the perfect introduction to Menashe, and Menashe.
We have the sense that writer-director Joshua Z. Weinstein’s camera could have followed any face in the crowd. That’s an unusual feeling to have in a fiction film, but there are more than eight million stories in the naked city, after all. The effect, though, is to imbue Menashe, from the outset, with the requisite naturalism for a riveting, Yiddish-language character study of a working-class Chassid on the margins of both his religious community and society at large.
The motor of the film is Menashe’s ham-fisted determination to raise his adolescent son, Rieven, by himself in the months following his wife’s premature death. His tenacity is understandable, for the boy and Jewish songs and scripture are Menashe’s only interests.
The religious leader, the ruv, while not unsympathetic, maintains that Rieven be raised in a “proper home” with a father and a mother. Given the unhappiness of his first, arranged marriage, Menashe (beautifully played by Menashe Lustig) is in no hurry to remarry. So, the boy lives with Menashe’s annoyingly self-assured brother-in-law, Eizik (the excellent Yoel Weisshaus), and his family in a nice home instead of at Menashe’s no-frills walk-up apartment. Rieven doesn’t mind, but it’s a continuing affront to Menashe’s self-respect and sense of responsibility.
Menashe is an exception among the many films about Orthodox Jews in that it does not involve a tug-of-war between tradition and the modern world, or the conflict between secularism and faith. The central dynamic in Menashe is class, which gives the viewer an unusual angle from which to view the ultra-Orthodox community. This film scarcely visits a yeshivah and the Chassidim with the long coats like Eizik, which are so familiar to us, are supporting characters – although it is plain that they are at the centre of community life.
Menashe, for his part, can’t get no respect. He works in a grocery market, a job with no status (regardless of how exceedingly moral he is) and low pay. There’s a picaresque scene where he’s enticed into having a 40-ouncer of cheap beer in the back of the store with a couple of Hispanic co-workers. Though the language barrier prevents Menashe from bonding with them past a certain point, he seems more comfortable in his own skin in their company than with the Jews in his circle and their judgments and expectations.
Our sympathies are with Menashe, of course, as they’d be with any single parent struggling to make ends meet and get a little ahead. But he’s far from perfect, and that smart move by Weinstein is what elevates the picture to the level of pathos.
Menashe is short-tempered, stubborn, perpetually late, fond of the occasional drink(s) and always playing catch-up. He’s the last to recognize that his character flaws, along with his circumstances, make him the biggest obstacle to establishing a stable life with Rieven.
Menashe is rife with the small truths of life – every father disappoints his son at some point, and vice versa – and the amusing, unexpected moments that occur every day. It’s a warm, generous film that doesn’t shy from sentimentality but doesn’t insult its audience, either. Ultimately, it introduces us to a memorable character whose resilience is, in its way, inspiring. Menashe is a small film, but it’s a special one.
Menashe opened Aug. 11 at Fifth Avenue in Vancouver. It is rated PG for thematic elements, and is in Yiddish with subtitles.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.