Menashe Lustig (left) and Ruben Niborski star in “Menashe.” Photo by Federica Valabrega, courtesy of A24

‘Menashe’ director takes unorthodox path for story of ultra-Orthodox single father


Filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein has shot documentaries throughout Asia and Africa, but in 2014 he aspired to explore a unique community closer to his home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Even though Weinstein lives in a predominantly Caribbean neighborhood, insular communities of Chasidic Jews reside just a short walk away.

“I loved that here was a whole society just down the street that I knew nothing about,” Weinstein, a non-religious Jew, said. “Intellectually, I was just endlessly curious about it.”

So the 34-year-old filmmaker donned a yarmulke and began hanging out in the Yiddish-speaking enclave with a notebook in hand. The result is his debut feature film, “Menashe,” which made a splash at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and has earned positive reviews.

With dialogue almost entirely in Yiddish (with English subtitles) and a cast of mostly non-professional Chasidic actors, the movie was shot in the most observant neighborhoods of New York. The plot is based loosely on the experiences of the film’s star, Menashe Lustig, a Skver Chasid who in real life had to give up his son after the death of his wife in 2008.

In the movie, the protagonist, also a widower named Menashe, is being pressured to remarry or allow his brother-in-law and family to raise his 10-year-old son (played by Ruben Niborski, the child of Israeli Yiddish scholars). Menashe’s rabbi and neighbors perceive the likable bachelor as a bumbling, even incompetent parent who works a blue-collar job at a kosher grocery and hardly can care for Rieuven in his tiny apartment. Further, a child must grow up in a family with two parents, the kind-but-firm rabbi insists. But Menashe won’t settle for a marriage of convenience; he fights to keep his son — with sometimes disastrous, sometimes comic results.

The film is one of several movies in recent years shot in the mama loshen, including Eve Annenberg’s “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” (2011) and Laszlo Nemes’ Auschwitz drama “Son of Saul” (2015), which won the Oscar for best foreign language film. “Menashe,” for its part, is not a harsh critique of the Chasidic community, unlike some previous films set in that world (think Sidney Lumet’s “A Stranger Among Us” in 1992 and Boaz Yakin’s 1998 drama, “A Price Above Rubies”). The protagonist never loses his piety, despite his ongoing dispute with his rabbi.

 

Filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein

But when Weinstein set out to make his film, challenges abounded. The filmmaker had learned Hebrew as a boy while attending a Conservative Jewish day school in New Jersey but didn’t speak a word of Yiddish. Most of his potential performers eschewed watching films on religious grounds, had never seen a movie and even risked excommunication from their communities for participating in such a project. Weinstein didn’t include a number of their names in the credits in order to protect them.

Circumstances improved after Weinstein met Danny Finkelman, a member of the more open Lubavitch Chasidic movement and a producer of music and other videos deemed proper for ultra-Orthodox viewers. It was Finkelman who introduced Weinstein to Lustig on a TV commercial set more than two years ago. Lustig already had made comic YouTube videos in Yiddish and aspired to earn more acting jobs. The filmmaker said he immediately was impressed by Lustig’s performing prowess. Over the next few months, Weinstein became so taken with Lustig’s personal story that he decided to fictionalize it for “Menashe.”

“I wanted to make a film about a father who has to make a decision that seems very complicated and difficult — and that would cause himself pain — to help his son,” he said.

In real life, Lustig’s father practically forced him into marriage in 2001 when he was 23, the actor said during a telephone interview from his home in New Square, N.Y. Yet the union proved peaceful, he said — until his spouse died after suffering an ovarian clot seven years later. “It was a very big tragedy, very sudden, and our son was only 4 years old,” he said.

Lustig and his British wife had lived in London, but upon her death he moved with his son back to his native New Square. While in real life his rabbi didn’t pressure him to relinquish custody, Lustig, who earns his living by working in a kosher grocery, himself came to realize that he could not adequately care for the boy, who is now 14. Eventually, he decided it was best that a neighboring family take in the child.

“But I fought with my feelings because I wanted to have him next to me,” said Lustig, who still manages to see his son often.

Lustig said he had mixed feelings when Weinstein asked him to star in “Menashe.” On the one hand, he already had appeared on YouTube and had more acting aspirations, despite some raised eyebrows in his community. On the other hand, he was concerned that the film’s content wouldn’t be entirely proper for a Skver Chasid, a member of one of the more insular Chasidic groups in the United States.

Lustig was convinced to participate when Finkelman agreed to vet the script. Even so, he did not ask his rabbi for permission to perform in the film.

“It’s better to do something without asking rather than asking; he tells you ‘no’ and you do it anyway,” the actor said. “That would be much more chutzpah.”

During the film’s shoot, Lustig said he focused on performing, not reliving his own painful memories of his wife’s death. “But when I watched it on the big screen the first time, it reminded me back to the bad anxiety and feelings,” he said.

Lustig, who said he hasn’t received much backlash from members of his community over “Menashe,” added that one reason he agreed to make the movie was to encourage the ultra-Orthodox to consider film as a viable, and valuable, medium.

“This movie has a message for every crowd,” Lustig said.

He recalled one non-religious viewer who wondered why the beleaguered Menashe character didn’t commit suicide.

“So, I thought to myself, that’s one of the big messages of the movie: Don’t give up anytime,” Lustig said. “There’s hope. One day, the sun will shine again.”

“Mensahe” opens in Los Angeles theaters July 28. 

Be who you are


One of my favorite times of each week is when we bless our children during Shabbat dinner.

Each week, in the liminal moment between kiddush and motzi, between sanctifying the day and thanking God for the food we are about to enjoy, we stop, as many Jewish families do, and offer our children a blessing, a personal prayer directed solely at them, a tradition that stems from this week’s parsha, Vayechi.

If you don’t already do this each week, I strongly encourage it as a wonderful family moment. And if you don’t have children, bless your spouse, your friends, yourself. In our family, we say the prayer by Marcia Falk for our son and daughter, using the appropriate Hebrew grammar for each. The male version is: “Heye asher tiheeye, v’heye baruch ba’asher teheeye [Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are].” After saying that for each child, we then say the traditional priestly blessing. I think that this form of the blessing speaks directly to the scenario we find this week between Joseph and Jacob in the moment where the blessing of Ephraim and Menashe occurs.

We are at the end of Genesis, the sun setting on the familial component of our Torah as we are about to turn the page toward slavery and nationhood. Jacob is dying and the Talmud, in Bava Metzia 87a, says that this is the first person in the Torah to be described as “ill” before death. Jacob is aware that his end is near and is seeking to bless his children and grandchildren, to offer them words of wisdom, to perhaps correct some of his past mistakes in these final moments of life. However, burdened by the past and operating with the strong rabbinic notion of “the actions of our ancestors are a sign to the next generation,” in the final moment of blessing with his grandchildren, Jacob continues the painful tradition of raising the younger child over the older, a tradition that we have seen in each previous generation, a tradition that Jacob himself, with great cunning and deception, participated in against his brother, Esau.

The scene between Joseph and Jacob in Vayechi is wrought with emotion, depth of character and moving words, as the old and seemingly blind Jacob (remember Isaac?) begins his final blessings for his family with his grandchildren. However, rather than starting the next generation fresh with a positive start, Jacob passes on a tradition that has brought pain to the previous two generations. Seeing this, and in a moment of courage and deep insight that reveals Joseph to truly be the “the righteous man” that the rabbis attribute him to be, Joseph tries to stop his father when he sees him crossing his hands from the older to the younger. Joseph says, “Not so father,” but Jacob, after coming so far and seeing so much, is unable to reverse this trend. Yet, he seems to know something, as he says, in dramatic fashion, “I know my son, I know,” but this knowledge doesn’t lead to action. We are left to think about what this scene means. What does Jacob “know”?

While the traditional commentators all see this moment as a positive one, carrying forth the tradition that sacrificed our biblical families in the name of historical transmission of God’s blessing, I want to offer a different thought based on the alternative blessing that we offer our own children.

When we say, “be who you are and may you be blessed in all that you are,” I believe that we are seeking to empower our children to be as God was to Moshe, “Eheye asher eheye [I will be that which I will be].”

We pray that our children develop in each moment according to their strengths and talents; that they grow, discover and evolve the gifts of their individual souls. Blessing our children is so powerful, so rich in emotional history, that we ought to allow them the freedom to become the people they will be rather than pigeonhole them into fulfilling our ideals as parents or the roles that our family history might have proscribed.

Joseph was attempting to change a family pattern that had caused so much pain, and while he wasn’t fully successful, his awareness of the pattern should be a great lesson to us. And the blessing that Jacob offers, “The angel that has delivered me from all harm, bless these lads,” should be seen as a hope that the greater angels of our life, the angels that encourage us to grow, develop and become who we are, should be the very blessing we offer our children.

I believe that God is constantly evolving, constantly becoming, and so should we. We each deserve to become the unique and holy being that God brought us into the world to be. Let us bless our children each Shabbat to grow into this great opportunity, thereby keeping the wise and righteous spirit of Joseph alive today.

Shabbat shalom.


Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (www.pjtc.net), a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.

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