I don’t see a lot of movies or pop culture in general for that matter that portray religious Judaism remotely accurately. Secular Jews are everywhere, but that’s completely different. Even the ones with someone who knew something, like A Price Above Rubies are tinged with self-hatred and spectacle. So it’s a real pleasure to see care and respect shown especially by a filmmaker who doesn’t live there.
Menashe comes from largely unknown director Joshua Z. Weinstein and stars Menashe Lustig in the titular role, loosely based on his own life. The movie takes place, and was filmed in, Borough Park, New York, one of the largest enclaves of Hasidic Jews in the world. Everyone speaks Yiddish, and the movie is almost entirely without English, despite taking place in New York City. Menashe is a widower, still mourning his wife who passed away a year earlier.
He is an uneducated manual laborer at the local grocery store, with an overbearing boss. As the anniversary of his wife’s death comes around, Menashe struggles with a longstanding conflict: His son Rieven (Ruben Niborski). In a community where marriage is everything, it is considered unacceptable for a father to raise a child alone, but Menashe is not ready to move on, despite being pushed by the community, including the rabbi.
Menashe wants to be a good father, but he isn’t the most stable or prepared person. Rieven has instead been staying with his conservative uncle Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), who is constantly on Menashe’s case for his mistakes, minor and major. Eizik is a bit of a pain, but he’s not really that wrong. Menashe has a low paying job and works extended hours, not the best way to support his son, who is certainly also mourning his mother.
Atop it all, Menashe wonders if he’s lost faith, or if he ever had it in the first place. All he really wants is to raise his son and have a family together again, but the community is against it. Menashe wants to convince the rabbi and everyone else to just give him a chance to prove himself as a father.
The movie is small in many ways, filmed often in secret, candid places, showing the Hasidim remarkably accurately. There are jerks in that community, and saints, and regular people doing their best. Menashe isn’t a monster, nor is he a secret genius. He’s simply a widower with a child and not a great skill set.
Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski have a marvelous rapport, and Ruben is very good for a child actor. It’s a bittersweet tale, two people struggling after such a terrible loss, but it feels real, and honest. I don’t speak fluent Yiddish, but with the subtitles, I had no troubles following along. I feel like this movie isn’t going to get a lot of attention, and that’s a shame.
In a lot of ways, it’s quite raw and open about itself. Menashe doesn’t monologue or narrate; we learn about his life and his character from how he talks and interacts with his world. Another man with a yarmulke and a beard walking the streets of New York, hardly a rarity. Yet he has his own story, not about saving the world, but trying to save himself.
And I appreciate a movie that knows itself. Overall, a fine addition to the indie movies of the year, and likely the best movie made about the religious Jewish community in a long while.
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Menashe has a run time of 1 hour 22 minutes and is rated PG for thematic elements.