In his July 28 review at rogerebert.com, Nick Allen writes: “Like all great films that nudge the world toward a slightly more compassionate place, the creation of ‘Menashe’ is an act of empathy.”
The film – which I saw at the Avon, in Providence, during the Labor Day weekend – tells the story of Menashe Lustig, a relatively young, overweight widower in one of the many Hasidic communities in Brooklyn, New York’s Borough Park; we come to know him as he struggles to regain custody of his 10- or 11-year-old son, Rieven. Menashe lives in a world in which it is assumed – indeed, virtually demanded – that a widowed father remarry as quickly as possible in order to provide his children with a mother.
As Allen says, what makes the movie “an act of empathy” is its exploration of such unwelcome but all too real “feelings at the bottom of anyone’s gut: guilt, shame, defeat.” The viewer is made to sympathize with Menashe, even though he is a bungling, heart-in-the-right-place but often ineffectual schlemiel.
When Rieven is temporarily in his charge, all Menashe can manage to offer his son for breakfast is a glass of soda and a left-over piece of cake. And when making deliveries for the grocery store where he works, Menashe loses $1,000 worth of prepared fish because he forgot to secure the back door of his truck. Oh, but he meant well!
As Allen points out towards the end of his review, the film is flooded with specific details – and “the specific is universal.”
As compelling as I found the film itself, I found the story of the making of “Menashe” equally compelling. The director and co-writer, Joshua Z. Weinstein, has been making documentaries for more than 10 years. In a July 27 interview with Robert Siegel, host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” he revealed that the idea of making “Menashe” came to him when he and a friend were visiting Borough Park several years ago on Purim: “We were in people’s houses, drinking with them, chatting with them. And all of sudden this closed community seemed very, very open and alive and just humanized in a way I’d never seen portrayed before.” Seven years later, this initial inspiration came to the screen as “Menashe.”
Menashe Lustig, a talented actor with no acting experience, played himself in the film; he provided the bridge between a documentary of Hasidic life in Brooklyn and a fictionalized story growing out of that life. As Weinstein explained in the NPR interview, Lustig was himself a widower who had lost custody of his son, who wound up living three blocks away. “[W]e used the emotional truth of that aspect of his life and created this fictional story around it,” he said.
An amazing aspect of the making of “Menashe” is that none of the actors had previous acting experience; indeed, many – including Lustig – had never set foot in a movie theater. As Weinstein reported, “This is a community of hundreds of thousands of people, but only 60 people showed up for the auditions.
So I would do these improv games with them where I wanted to understand who they were, what their quirks were. And the performances were incredible. Each one was really that person.”
Just as incredible is that the movie is almost entirely in Yiddish, with English subtitles. In that same NPR interview, Siegel asked Weinstein, “How do you direct people making a movie in a language that you don’t know?”
To which Weinstein responded, “We’d first show up and we would rehearse the scenes in English, would block them so all the actors and me were on the same page.”
The director went on to explain that since the cast members were amateurs, they could never redo the scene in precisely the same way.
“Non-actors, everything they do is a one-time event. So when they went to Yiddish, it was like a first time for them. And then we had translators who were live translating … and one of the producers was listening just to make sure that the actors didn’t go so much off-book.”
Perhaps the most powerful observation Weinstein made about filming in a foreign language is this vital distinction: “… It’s how people say something. It’s not what people say. It’s what their eyes do. It’s how their – it’s how their hands move ….”
While many commentators have praised “Menashe” for its emotional sensitivity and careful combining of documentary and fictional story-telling, some have criticized the film for its failure to answer its central question: Does Menashe regain custody of his son?
Weinstein concluded his NPR interview by defending the movie’s ambiguous ending: “[Lustig] loves the ending because it feels like his own life. His life hasn’t been decided yet, so why should the film have an ending?”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: For more on “Menashe,” see Mike Fink’s Sketchbook on page 24.