February 25, 2020

‘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.