"Menashe" is a story about a father's love for his son and the cultural strictures that keep them apart.
If you have an itch to test your grasp of Yiddish, shlep on over to “Menashe,” the unorthodox dramedy sneaking its way into your heart by sneaking inside the cloistered world of New York City’s orthodox Jews.
It’s directed by Joshua Weinstein, a documentary-maker by trade whose familiarity with hidden cameras gains him access – guerilla style – to a world most of us never imagined or ever seen. Set in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, a heavily Hasidic neighborhood where filmmakers are about as welcome as a root canal, “Menashe” movingly tells – in Yiddish – the fact-based tale of Menashe Lustig, a widowed schlemiel with a knack for creating chaos everywhere his large, bulbous body steps.
Relating more with his Hispanic co-workers at the local bodega than with his true-believer family and neighbors, Menashe desperately wants to be a mentsh, not a schlimazel.
He also needs to find a wife – and fast – so he can regain custody of his 10-year-old son, Rieven, who since his mother’s recent death has resided with his aunt and uncle in keeping with a Hasidic law forbidding single parenting. The only thing blocking Menashe’s path to reunification is the matter of him not wanting to get hitched, especially after enduring Rieven’s mother, a woman he never loved and was forced to wed via an arranged marriage.
That’s what passes for plot in Weinstein’s meandering tale of an uneasy love between a klutz of a father and his oft-disappointed son. But that’s not what “Menashe” is really about.
Rather, it’s a charmingly mounted observation piece about a 21st century man negotiating a society operating under the dictates of an 18th century religion. And what we see is a bit like “Witness” when Harrison Ford floundered like a fish out of water in Amish country. It also strikes you as strange to see a movie shot mere miles from Manhattan being presented like a European product spoken almost entirely in Yiddish.
It’s a feature that augments the film’s documentary feel. A mood enhanced by Weinstein’s choice to hire neighborhood residents to capably fill most of the acting roles, including Menashe himself, portrayed by Menashe Lustig, on whose personal real-life custody battle the movie is based. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that calling on his own experiences makes Lustig’s performance all the more authentic. From the first time you see him engaged in the latest spat with his exasperated boss, there’s something about him that intrigues and grabs hold. And his chemistry with young, adorable Ruben Niborski as Rieven is – dare I say – a godsend. Their assorted adventures are pure mishegas, as Menashe gets in over his head by insisting on playing host to his wife’s memorial service in his tiny apartment; a challenge that includes cooking the post-rite meal.
Kugel, anyone? The point, I guess, is that Menashe and Rieven belong together and it’s an antiquated Hasidic diktat keeping them apart. Yet at the same time, you admire the strong sense of community in a neighborhood where friends and relatives can be a pain in the tuchus, but when the chips are down, have your back.
The movie tries to make sense of that dichotomy in its endearing way, but it offers no resolution, which may disappoint fans of nice, tidy endings. “Menashe” quietly and deftly, just fades into the night. Yet it leaves you feeling touched and just a bit more enlightened. To that, all I can say is mazel tov!
MENASHE (PG for thematic elements.) Cast includes Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski and Yoel Weisshaus. In Yiddish with English subtitles. Grade: A-