A tremendous blend of drama and finely observed moments in a closed-off society

Yiddish-language film ‘Menashe’ blessed to play at Sundance

Filmed over the course of a year, the movie captures an intimate glimpse inside the Haredi community and may become just as archetypical as ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Actor and comedian Menashe Lustig in 'Menashe.' (courtesy)
Actor and comedian Menashe Lustig in 'Menashe.' (courtesy)

NEW YORK — “I put on a yarmulke, went to Borough Park and took out my notebook.”

That’s how Joshua Z. Weinstein, who is not a member of the Haredi community, began his research into “Menashe,” a low-budget independent movie filmed entirely in Yiddish.

It is a touching gem of a film, loosely based on the struggles of its lead character, played by Brooklyn’s own Menashe Lustig. Successful director Chris Columbus (of “Home Alone” fame) recently signed on as a post-facto executive producer, joining Israeli co-producers Gal Greenspan and Maya Fischer.

“Menashe” makes its official debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival before heading to the Berlin Film Festival, but The Times of Israel had a chance to take a sneak peek in New York and chat with the director and star over some noodle kugel.

“There really haven’t been too many Yiddish movies since before World War II,” Weinstein tells me. “What few are made now are predominantly soap operas, almost like Mexican ‘telenovelas.’”

Movies and internet entertainment are still largely forbidden in most ultra orthodox communities, but, of course, many still indulge.

Among the rising Hassidic stars on YouTube is Menashe Lustig, who is a natural, ebullient comedian. When Weinstein met Lustig (with this help of a producer of religious videos in the Lubavitcher community) the story that eventually became “Menashe” began to take shape.

Though warm in spirit, the character of Menashe (the movie version) is a classic schlimazel. He’s struggling to hang onto his job at a grocery store, his apartment is a mess and he can barely keep his tzitzit on straight. He is nearing the one-year anniversary of his wife’s death, and the entire community is urging him to remarry. (We only see one of his awkward, yenta-driven dates; it’s more than enough.)

Tragically, since he is a single father (and a not particularly responsible one, at that) his rabbi has ordered that Menashe’s son stay with the child’s economically secure uncle (the brother of the deceased) until Menashe can find a new mate.

That last bit wasn’t made up for the movie, it’s from Menashe’s own life.

“There’s no universal law demanding single fathers give up their child,” Weinstein explains, “but when I heard this it clicked with Menashe’s ‘sad clown’ persona. I knew this was the story.”

‘There’s no universal law demanding single fathers give up their child, but I knew this was the story’

“Menashe” is exactly what you want from a Sundance-style small movie about a unique subculture. It immerses you in its world and lets the rules and rhythms reveal themselves. It’s little surprise that the bulk of Weinstein’s previous work has been in documentary.

Unlike most independent films, which are shot in a matter of weeks, Weinstein teased it out over the course of a year. (“I’m used to documentaries, that’s how it’s done.”) The result is a tremendous blend of drama, but also finely observed moments in a usually closed-off society. From the wood-paneled basements packed with davening men to the vans loaded with cardboard boxes of gefilte fish, there is a tactile nature to “Menashe” that only comes from steeping oneself in the community.

The small New York screening was the first time Menashe Lustig saw the film. He seemed more than pleased. I asked Weinstein if his actor was worried about ostracism for his involvement in the production and he only shrugged. (The actor who plays the pre-teen son is actually not from the community, but the child of Jerusalem-based “Yiddishists” with an eye toward preserving the language, and as such could speak the language well.)

When I finally get a moment to congratulate the new star I asked him if he is excited about a trip to the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

“I never knew from Sundance,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “They say it’s a festival, so I asked, ‘It’s a holiday?’ I understand what it is now.” He’s intrigued about going to Utah and maybe meeting (“how do they call themselves?”) some Mormons.

“They are similar to Jews a little, I’m told,” he continues, perhaps referring to the Church of Latter Day Saints’ use of the term Zion. He’s also unsure if he’ll be seeing any other movies during his stay.

“I’ve seen a few movies,” he says. “I’ve seen many Holocaust movies. And ‘Fiddler on the Roof.'”

Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye was an archetypal Jew for the early 20th century. Maybe Menashe is one for the early 21st.

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