Documentary filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein’s feature film directing debut is an intriguing project that is not just based on a real story, but it actually stars the subject himself who has never actually acted before, and it all makes for such compelling viewing. Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is an Hassidic Jew who has been widowed for a year, and is now being forced by the very strict rules of the Community to remarry in order to still be allowed to have Rieven (Ruben Niborski) his teenage son live with him. If he fails to comply, then Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) the boy’s straight-laced uncle will take him in as part of his family where he enforces all of the Hassidic traditions.
The film was shot in Borough Park Brooklyn and aside from a few lines, the vast majority of the dialogue spoken by this non-professional cast is yiddish (even though the director himself is not fluent in it). It re-inforces the authenticity of the story which may not seek to challenge the rulings of Ruv the neighborhood Rabbi (Meyer Schwartz), but Menashe has a problem accepting that they are the only way forward for the good of all concerned.
Menashe is what is known in his community as a schlimazel i.e. a chronically unlucky person. He lives in a scruffy one room apartment and has trouble paying the rent. He works as a lowly paid sales clerk in a local Kosher grocery store where the mean spirited manager makes he do all the menial tasks like mopping the shop floors after hours. He tries his hardest to convince everyone that he is capable of acting responsible but such attempts to prove this often end disastrously, and once even with his son calling his Uncle asking to be rescued.
Menashe also has some odd conflicting ideas of maintaining his faith.One minute he is lecturing his boss about selling unwashed lettuce, and also spending every night after work at the Yeshiva studying passages from the Torah, but then he fails to keep a Kosher home and so feeds his son cake and soda for breakfast when he stays over.
His son is indeed the apple of his eye and he will do anything to persuade the Ruv to let him be able to bring him up on his own. Anything that is, except have another miserable arranged marriage as his first one was so bad, he was actually relieved when his wife sadly died. And judging by his brother-in-law’s household, his is hardly any better.
Weinstein offers us his documentarian style with these fascinating fly-on-the wall scenes as we closely observe this heartbreaking story unfold. It is totally gripping to have such an inside view of a community that is so too often a closed book to the outside world partly because this particular scenario looks like something that is playing out exactly as it would have had it occurred in another century.
Menashe, an unusual hybrid of a movie, is a wee small gem, even for us gentiles.