Menashe is not perfect; in fact, he is anything but. He works a mediocre cashier job at the local grocery, fails to pay his bills and thinks a balanced breakfast consists of cake and soda. Menashe, played by real-life Hasidic Jew (and amateur actor) Menashe Lustig, just can’t seem to get it right. Recently widowed, Menashe vows to fight for the one thing in his life that he cares about: his son. His brother-in-law does not respect him, his boss thinks he is incompetent, even the Ruv (the community Rabbi) himself thinks Menashe can’t make it on his own. Menashe is given the choice to conform to the traditional two-parent home or fight a losing battle as a single father — an unfathomable idea in the Hasidic enclave of Brooklyn.
“Menashe” is a Yiddish film loosely based on the chubby, bearded lead actor’s own story in confronting a society that has expected him to fail. Within the Hasidic community, secular culture — including the English language — is seen as un-kosher. Such communities have cut themselves off from the rest of the world, so while the film is set in Brooklyn, it feels like a distant country where they dress in black and white and say things like “verklempt.” Although the community feels distant, the themes and story can feel personal for anyone, regardless of background. The film is just as much about the isolated Hasidic culture as it is about a father figuring it out and a son who loves him regardless of whether he wears a “streimel” or not.
Written and directed by documentary cinematographer Joshua Z. Weinstein (“I Beat Mike Tyson”), “Menashe” sometimes evokes the realism and authenticity of a documentary. This is only fueled by the fact that the film’s cast is made up of amateur actors from the Hasidic community. While the film is not a documentary, it certainly could be. The characters are inspired by real people and the story closely follows that of the experiences of Lustig himself. Trying to capture the Hasidic world from the inside is practically impossible due to the reclusive, insular nature of the community. Weinstein even had to use a Yiddish translator on the set in order to communicate with the cast. Weinstein manages to accomplish being both an informed insider, thanks to the authentic cast, and an objective outsider, looking in at the community like an anthropologist conducting ethnographic research.
“Menashe” is an emotional journey filled with an equal amount of laughs, cries and frustrated sighs. While we want to root for Menashe, it is challenging. Throughout the film he is called a “schlimazel” —one who is plagued by bad luck and shadowed by disaster after disaster — and he does not disappoint. No matter what Menashe does, it ends in misfortune. Yet, in the end, his son still sees him as a superhero, as his father. His son’s unconditional love makes the viewer want to love Menashe all the more.