Written by Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed, & Joshua Z Weinstein
Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein
Menashe is a widowed Hasidic man whose young son is living with Menashe’s in-laws until the man can remarry. He works a dead-end job at a grocery store with a manager who cuts him no slack. Menashe was never delighted with his arranged marriage, though he misses his wife and loves his son. He attempts to take his son back, but this unravels into a conflict with his brother in law Eizik. Their rabbi decides that Menashe will keep the boy for the week leading up to his late wife’s one-year memorial. Menashe struggles with being the father his community doubts he can be and maintaining his sense of individuality within his tight-knit cultural group. Every day feels like a loss of his self to make others around him happy.
This is a fictional film though it is autobiographical. First-time actor Menashe Lustig is a Hasidic Jew living in New York City who is widowed and was declared an unfit parent by his rabbi. Menashe Lustig’s son is still living with his in-laws as the man refuses to get remarried and follow the expectations of the rabbi. The film takes place almost entirely in the Yiddish language and the director, Joshua Weinstein had to produce some small scenes as a way into this reclusive community, showing he was making the film with the utmost respect for their culture.
Menashe recalls Italian neo-realism in the way it is shot, a Yiddish Bicycle Thieves. The film is most definitely a character study rather than a tightly plotted affair. The emphasis is on following Menashe through his world and examining how he deals with social expectations and the stress of life. His interactions with his manager are a particular mix of humor and cruelty, an excellent example of Yiddish humor. The film doesn’t allow Menashe to be a purely sympathetic character though; we see him being responsible for a lot of the mishaps in his life. After informing his manager that he forgot to the close the van doors which resulted in the stock of fish stumbling out onto the pavement, Menashe then brings up the loan his manager had hinted at earlier. We see that our protagonist is making dumb choices that don’t further his goal to become closer to his son but create more obstacles.
The actor Menashe Lustig is quite good for a first time performer. It helps that the story is his own so he can find those emotions in a scene and pull them out. There is a particular moment, where Menashe is on a date with a widow, and we see him wanting to speak against some of the traditions of his culture. He makes mention of marriage not being something he wants in his life, and the woman responds with her critique of men in their community. We see from her perspective that she wants stability for her family and is tired of dating even more than Menashe. For Lustig to allow himself to be so flawed and wrong while telling his own story is a courageous thing to do.
While the film does not overtly critique the Hasidic Jewish faith, there are definite problems highlighted throughout. Menashe’s transformation by the end of the film doesn’t feel like a triumph. There is an air of defeat but a sense that he is still traveling down a path of understanding. Right now it looks as though he is trying a different approach, not necessarily giving up. In the opening scene of the film, we see Menashe emerge from a crowd of Hasids, looking dramatically different from them, a mess. In the final scene, he disappears into a group, wearing an outfit that conforms to their expectations. There is a lack of assuredness about what happens next only that things are going to be different.