By Larry Gordon
Menashe is a good and simple man. But even according to his fictional family members, while he might be a pious man, he is first and foremost a “schlemazal.”
The new film Menashe is showing in movie theaters in or near Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, as well as the Malverne Theater in nearby Malverne, New York, a short distance from the Five Towns.
The first matter of interest is why this film was made in the first place. It is certainly a fascinating look into an otherwise private and insulated community that does not necessarily appreciate having the light of day cast on the intimate details of its everyday routines.
Menashe is just an average chassidic man who lives simply, dresses in traditional chassidic garb (white shirt, black vest, etc.), and is dealing with everyday struggles that many people deal with regardless of how they identify in terms of religion or any other type of lifestyle affiliation. That he is a chassidic man is an eye-opener of sorts, as the suspicion might exist that worldly problems have not yet figured out a way to penetrate our community. They certainly have.
Menashe is a widower; his wife apparently passed away at a young age. They had one child who in the movie is now about ten years old. The child’s rebbe believes the boy should live with his wife’s brother and his family because of the more conventional family structure.
While Menashe is unhappy with the situation, he is a man of faith, and if this is what the rebbe feels is best for his son, so be it. He accepts the situation as it is. He is not in a hurry to remarry because, despite the difficulties and frustrations in his life, after all is said and done, things can be better for him but, then again, they are not so bad.
This is a film that the chassidic community would just love to see. The only problem is that, by and large, it is anathema and strictly forbidden, in most instances, to either see a movie or go to a movie theater.
But not so fast. One of the film’s producers, Danny Finkelman, says that in the city where the film is showing presently, he sees an increasing number of chassidic couples coming out each night to see Menashe.
So the two-year undertaking, the brainchild of filmmaker Josh Weinstein, with screenplay co-written by Alex Lipschultz, is catching on, showing in more and more theaters around the country on a weekly basis. Finkelman, who was recruited to the film by Weinstein, said that Josh wanted to do a film about the chassidic community, but, having been raised as a non-religious Jew in New York, he had no idea where to begin.
Finkelman has garnered an impressive number of Jewish music videos to his credit. He was the contact charged with recruiting people without any acting credentials capable of playing a role on film that was closely identical to their real lives.
But where do you start to search for such a personality in the New York chassidic community? Here’s the answer: Lipa Schmeltzer. Here is the part-two answer to the same question. Menashe Lustig is Lipa Schmeltzer’s brother-in-law. This could be where the mystery ends and the story begins.
The film depicts Menashe as a widower with a ten-year-old son, and he is exactly that in real life too. Mr. Finkelman points out that just as in the movie, Menashe is a grocery-store employee, but with one difference; it seems that he owns the store that he works in, located in New Square, the Skverer Chassid-dominated community in Rockland County.
A film now being seen around the world, a shooting schedule, personal appearances, acting and appearing in a film with women, all of the above are the ingredients and a combination of circumstances that would usually not fly. Menashe, the film, seems to be the exception to those strict rules.
“This is a film that shows chassidim in both a realistic and positive light,” Danny Finkelman says. “To date, any time chassidim were shown on film, it was in a questionable if not completely negative view; that is not the case with Menashe.”
“It took two years to shoot the film because there was an array of false starts,” Finkelman says. He added that a number of the chassidim who appeared in some parts of the film either changed their mind or were pressured to withdraw at some point which meant recasting their roles, resulting in more delays.
So which audience is interested in seeing a story about a lone chassidic man trying to raise his son after losing his wife? For those who know a bit about movie distribution, identifying the audience is the key to success for a film. The producers were fortunate to attract the interest of A24, the company that distributed Moonlight, the movie that won an Oscar last year for best film of the year.
The question still remains: where is a movie where the actors speak Yiddish—with English subtitles—really going to go? Well, apparently it seems that as far as independent films like this go, Menashe is on the move. Today the film is already in theaters in Istanbul, Turkey, China, Australia, and New Zealand.
“Can you just imagine that a film in Yiddish with Chinese subtitles is playing in theaters throughout China?” Danny says. The popularity of a film like this that one might think would have only limited marketability seems to be defying that rationale.
Regardless where you stand on the subject of movies, and it seems to be an identifying lifestyle choice that for some says a great deal about people, it just might be that Menashe represents a convergence of worlds.
On the matter of appearing with women in a film, when the charedi outlook in communities like that is such that a woman’s image is not permitted even in a publication, this indeed represents a departure from that self-styled norm.
How does the real-life Menashe deal with these crossover situations, though the two or three women depicted in the film are dressed modestly and playing themselves accurately and respectfully? Finkelman says that at first all the chassidic actors insisted that there cannot be any women in the film and some dropped out of the production over the matter. But ultimately they relented to these limited roles that three women have in the film.
Though the rabbi in the film, Meyer Schwartz, in real life a taxi driver who lives in Sea Gate in Brooklyn, is constantly insisting that Menashe needs to be married, there is just one shidduch date scene where Menashe confesses that he is in no rush to remarry, even though being married would assure the return of his son to his home.
In that one scene, the prospective shidduch comments to Menashe, “Your mothers spoil you and your wives take over.” That was not quite the situation that the involuntarily single Menashe was anxious to get into.
The increasing popularity of the film would seem to indicate that there is a general public out there that is curious not just about chassidic life but about lifestyles that are foreign to them.
That can be the appeal that Menashe is offering. One of the inside issues that a non-Jewish or even non-Orthodox audience will not understand is that Menashe is shown in shul at Minchah and Ma’ariv just wearing his black vest over his white shirt; there is no black hat and no long coat.
As some know, the hat and jacket in the chassidish and even the yeshiva world is probably one of the most important ingredients of that way of life. Once a young man is in one of these shuls sans the hat and jacket, he can easily be marked either rebellious or just an oddball.
You’ll have to watch this closely, because in the last scene of the movie, we catch a glimpse of—if not a new and improved then at least a changed—Menashe. And how are we able to discern that this change has taken place? Menashe is wearing his hat and jacket.
Menashe is an important and even on some levels a breakthrough film. It’s also fun and exciting to see how a lifestyle that we are so familiar with is being presented to the world at large.
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