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'Menashe' a Deeply Lived Story Among Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jews

Sep. 6, 2017
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menashe

Hasidic Jews are numerous in New York City and the men are highly visible in their long black coats and high hats. Menashe, an astutely observant look into the Hasidim of Brooklyn, introduces its titular character as a crowd of Hasidic men emerges from a mobbed street and as he emerges from his compatriots. For reasons left unexplained but perhaps a clue to his stubbornness over small points, Menashe wears no coat or hat but only a yarmulke and a black vest with the fringes of his prayer shawl dangling from his sides. He’s a round, lumbering teddy bear of a mensch faced with challenges that are both aggravated and ameliorated by the particular community he inhabits. 

Menashe

Menashe Lustig

Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein

Rated PG

Menashe’s wife, whom he never loved, has died; the rabbi insists that his son Rieven, whom he loves dearly, must live with his wife’s brother’s family for the sake of being raised in a two-parent home. The rabbi says Menashe can have Rieven back once he remarries. But for reasons only hinted, Menashe isn’t eager to find another wife. He’s happy enough single, despite the continual interventions of matchmakers.

Directed and co-written by Joshua Z. Weinstein, Menashe is almost entirely spoken in Yiddish and is a rare present-day descendent of the flourishing pre-World War II Yiddish movie culture. Reportedly shot in secret amid the Brooklyn Hasidim and suggested by the life of the lead actor, Menashe Lustig, the film wears a patina of deeply lived experiences.

Menashe is suffused in piety yet sometimes questions the teachings he’s presented. He’s absent-minded and sometimes careless. Any other boss would have fired him, but he continues to work at a corner store owned by a co-religionist where he is tolerated but berated. His brother-in-law, Eizik, eying him with unconcealed disdain, puts up with a man he regards as a money-borrowing loser for the sake of his nephew and late sister. The rabbi, a man of justice within the boundary of his beliefs, is left to adjudicate the family quarrels. Rieven is torn between love for his father and the knowledge that dad is regarded by everyone as a fool.

Menashe finds strength and claustrophobia in a tightly defined community that defines him in large measure through its restrictions. Lustig gives a superbly understated performance that depends on the nuances of weary body language. Menashe is a film that leaves the audience waiting for something big to happen. As is sometimes true in life, that big something never happens amid the passing joys and troubles of everyday.

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