It came and it went, after a generous spread of matinee showings at the Avon. And it was mercifully succinct, coming in at just a few minutes under the classic 90-minute tradition of Old Hollywood, its golden years. It was a treat to hear the Yiddish language, and to catch a few glimpses of Hasidic customs and rituals. Despite its small audience and rather lukewarm reviews, “Menashe” is a marvelous movie! Not entirely for the usual crowd-pleasing reasons, but for some moments of what Hitchcock once labeled “that rarest of civilized virtues: irony!”
The plot? Well, a clumsy widower with a nice young grieving son consults the reb, the supervising rabbi of the tightly knit community, about what he must do to keep his boy by himself. The lad, the boychik, lives with his uncle, his late mother’s brother, and sometimes with his solitary father, who can hardly hold onto his job doing errands for a local shopkeeper. Menashe sweeps the floor, delivers groceries – and is always on the brink of being fired.
This anti-hero is a defeated dad, unable to cope but determined to devote his life to his beloved semi-orphaned only child.
Does he have any friendly company? Yes, a couple of non-Jewish workers, with whom he can confide his true feelings. No, he was not happy with his wife, he confides to them, and admits that he did not care for her with loving concern during her illness. The problem is, a Hasidic child must dwell with two parents, a mother and a father. And so, Menashe has to find, within a fortnight, through the offices of a matchmaker, a new wife/mother, or else he must surrender his son to the brother-in-law – and the in-laws have little respect or regard for each other.
What’s good about the film, artistically, is that the acting is superb, subtle and unsentimental, and that there are no conventional villains. Yes, people shout insults at each other and in some sense hurl abuse. But, on the other hand, they also open their doors and restrain their anger enough to help out as best they can.
The boy himself is unsure of his own feelings. He loves his dad and enjoys his life with him, but understands his father’s failings and knows that his uncle would be the better choice for his future.
The ending of the movie is what most endeared this remarkable motion picture to me. It even unsettled me! The Hasidim wear layers of clothing that hold mystical spiritual meaning, and we watch them dressing and undressing. In the end, Menashe removes his undergarments and gets into a tub of hot water. For just a moment, I thought perhaps he was approaching a death by drowning ... for only for a brief hesitant second … and then I got it! He was in his personal mikveh, or ritual bath.
The script had prepared us somewhat for this gesture. Menashe tells his offspring, his legacy, “Wash yourself, cleanliness outside is also cleanliness inside.” And so, this final scene means that Menashe will overcome his profound sadness and seek a second wife in hopes that his life will improve and he can reenter the world on proper terms.
This is precisely what the rabbi had declared and determined. That old man with the unkempt white beard was by no means a harsh judge. We watched him eat the burnt, ruined cake that Menashe served at the memorial meal customary to commemorate a death.
The rabbi would not diminish the dignity of his host nor use words that might hurt the soul of the mourner. That is a form of “murder” – to use words to harm a fellow Hasid.
And so, the story of Menashe is a gentle tale using the humor, the melancholy, the sympathy of the movement with the ordinary spirits that may, by a kind of miracle, support the human realm – and it surpasses many louder voices and more superficially “exciting” scripts and scenes in its understated sheer basic beauty. And truth.
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.