Menashe

            This is a small-scoped, gentle little film that will make you feel like a foreigner in your own country.

            Director Joshua Z. Weinstein is a veteran documentarian who doesn't speak Yiddish, either.  But he takes us to the ultra-conservative Hasidic community in Brooklyn, where religion and family and culture and context and neighborhood are all interlocked.  And he chooses “real” people, not Hollywood actors, to tell this tender, poignant story about the widower who just wants to be with his son.

            Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is very much a part of this subculture, and he doesn't have any intention of leaving it.  And yet, he's at odds with it.  His wife, Leah, has died (of a blood clot), and the community assumes that a man cannot raise a child by himself.  The child must be in a “proper” household, that is, with a husband and wife together, and so Menashe's son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski) has been living with Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), Leah's brother, and his wife.  Eizik is a proud and arrogant man who obviously looks down on Menashe, and tells Rieven that Menashe did not properly care for his mother, Leah.  Menashe knows that Eizik has no respect for him, which makes it even more difficult for him to turn over Rieven to Eizik, so he appeals to the Rabbi, the Ruv (Meyer Schwartz), who gives Menashe one week of custody before he must comply with the community's standards.

            Menashe does not even consider taking his son and running away.  This creates a tension in the viewer, because we in the “goyim,” or Gentile, American culture just assume that all Menashe would have to do is run away with his son to almost anywhere else in the United States, even to a different part of Brooklyn, and any judge would award him full custody.  But instead, Menashe tries to appeal to Eizik's sensitivity (not happening) or the Ruv's willingness to grant an exception (also not happening).

            We feel for Menashe, because we, too, have been in situations where the right path seems obvious to us, but not to everyone around us.  Menashe is also less than a smashing success at work.  He a clerk in a small kosher grocerty store, but he keeps messing up.  He spills product, he's late, he argues with the steely-eyed owner about not washing the lettuce before selling it.  Menashe manages some graceful moments with his son.  He buys him a baby chick to feed.  They laugh over shared memories.  But Menashe doesn't know the first thing about cooking, or housekeeping, or tutoring.  He wants to drag Rieven along when he gets together with his drinking buddies, but doesn't have a radio or television in his tiny apartment, much less a computer.  He seems a part of a previous century, somehow thrown into the modern world with little idea how to navigate it.

            Director Weinstein allows much to be untranslated:  not only all the Jewish prayer rituals, but even the Spanish spoken by a couple of the grocery store employees.  (Ironically, Menashe speaks English with them, the only non-subtitled parts of the movie.)

            Just for a little while (82 minutes), the viewer is transported to an unfamiliar world, where we wouldn't otherwise have access.  But it's a bittersweet journey, and one littered with abject disappointments and slow-burning frustrations.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  The Torah says, “It is not good that man should be alone.”  Do you agree?

2)                  The Talmud says a man should have three things:  a good wife, a good home, and nice dishes. Do you agree?

3)                  The Hasidic culture still insists on arranged marriage.  What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association