Menashe by Joshua Z Weinstein is a very humane story that’s set in a uniquely closed community but turns out to have universal appeal.
Abraham and Isaacby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Menashe is an overweight Jewish widower who works in a convenience store in Borough Park, Brooklyn, a strictly Hasidic part of New York. He’s good-natured but he’s not successful and a bit hapless, causing his boss to constantly nag him: but he’s also an observant Orthodox Jew who respects his rabbi’s ruling that his 13-year-old son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) is not allowed to live with him until he marries again – man is not meant to live alone and a new wife would cook and clean. However, no matter how much he loves his son, after the death of his wife, Menashe is reluctant to marry and an attempt at matchmaking doesn’t go well. Meanwhile, Rieven has to live with his officious brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) and his family. Eizik seems to blame Menashe in some unspoken way for the death of his sister.
Writer/director Joshua Z Weinstein is a documentary maker and this is his first feature but it has a very verité, naturalistic feel. Partly this is because of the way he shoots the busy neighbourhood streets with the black-garbed community going about its daily business, but also due in large part to the personality of its star, internet comic Menashe Lustig, who in real life lost custody of his son in the same way. Lustig had never acted before, in fact he’d never even seen a film, but he’s an endearing natural in a role made for him.
As a compromise, the rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) gives Menashe a week to show that he can be a competent single father and win his son back. The love between them is real and you so want him to succeed, as does Rieven. And yet no matter how hard Menashe tries, and even with the best of intentions, it never quite seems to work. He’s always a bit late, a bit slapdash, there’s no breakfast and the important kugel he tries to make burns. Earlier, symbolically, the chick he gives his son to rear in the cramped one-bed flat doesn’t thrive. But his efforts don’t go unnoticed: the wise old rabbi teaches Eizik a lesson in compassion.
The film is almost entirely in Yiddish, enforcing the sense of the community’s otherness in the city, breaking into English only very briefly when Menashe gets a morale boost from his Hispanic co-workers. Overall, it’s a fascinating, authentic-feeling glimpse into the rituals, beliefs and daily life of the Hasidic Jewish community. And it’s an at-times comic, at-times heartbreaking story of father-son love – a powerful universal tug to be together that risks being thwarted by the surroundings in which it’s nurtured.
Menashe is released on 8 December 2017 in the UK.