Feb 27, 2017
USA, Israel 2017
Yiddish, English, 81 min
by Joshua Z Weinstein
with Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski
For more on the film, see Koenig’s review: Yiddish-language Feature Menashe Premieres at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.
Raphael Koenig: Menashe is the first Yiddish-language movie ever to be selected for the Berlin International Film Festival: what are your thoughts on this?
Joshua Z Weinstein: One can’t come to Germany and not feel a sadness and irony that before the war there were thirteen million Yiddish speakers in the world, and that there were cinemas, multiple daily newspapers in Yiddish, books, movies … There is a huge cultural loss that happened and lot of our identity was lost: because of the Holocaust of course, but also because, as a society, we decided that Hebrew was going to be our future. And with both sides of the knife, we lost something of what we were. It’s amazing that today the people who are the most religious, who aren’t even part of secular society, are the ones holding the torch for a language that secularism has completely forgotten. It’s ironic, bittersweet and sad.
R: J. Hoberman talked about “post-Yiddish cinema” in 1991, but you just brought a Yiddish language movie to the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival, casting exclusively native speakers of Yiddish …
J: I wanted to shoot this film because it was impossible to make. My mother grew up listening to her parents speak Yiddish, and even she thought that it was a stupid idea to make this movie. I wanted it to be authentic: it’s a movie that is in Yiddish for authenticity but I’m not trying to teach the world Yiddish. I knew nothing about Yiddish, so even though my grandparents spoke Yiddish, I grew up learning Hebrew. It wasn’t my goal to make a Yiddish movie: Menashe is a US independent film in Yiddish. Of course I’m all in favor of Yiddish cinema and I hope that Yiddish films are made, but as a filmmaker I was mostly interested in this: here’s a society that is closed off, that purposefully doesn’t want to interact with the secular world and images from it are not understood by us in intimate ways. And that’s what fascinated me about this movie: showing a perspective that we cannot easily comprehend. The goal was to make a kind of ethnographic movie, coming at it from an outsider’s perspective and sharing something in a way that made it feel intimate.
Menashe Lustig: Yiddish-language movies haven’t been produced for a very long time … The last time that someone like me was on a stage here in Berlin was more than 80 years ago, if at all. But with new media, it has become much easier to shoot movies. I had done a lot of videos on YouTube before, but they were not shot by a professional filmmaker like Joshua. When Joshua first contacted me I thought: maybe it’s just a scam, I don’t know what this guy wants from me. I wasn’t thinking that I was doing anything special. To be honest, I hadn’t even thought that it could be possible that someone like him could take genuine interest in my work and in my life in general.
R: Tickets to Menashe were sold out within minutes at the Berlinale box office: so it looks like there are a lot of other people who are interested as well!
M: I know! The other day we were in Utah [at Sundance]; the audience was 70 percent Jewish. Nisht-heymishe, non-observant Jews, but they could interact with me on a certain level, knew a couple of Yiddish words. But here in Berlin most of the people in the audience were not Jewish. I was expecting them to maybe even walk out when they heard Yiddish, but no one left the cinema, maybe only one or two persons, they all stayed and seemed to enjoy the film: it’s been a khidesh, a big surprise for me to see that!
R: How did you two end up working together, and how did you proceed?
J: I reached out to the Yiddish theater in New York, but it didn’t work out. But I think that hiring non-professional actors made more sense in the end. You know, the beards, the peyes, they had to be real: otherwise it wouldn’t have been authentic. We were also on a limited budget, and a good fake beard costs a lot of money [laughs].
M: It was different than normal. Joshua wouldn’t give me a detailed script of what to say, rather he would give me a concept and tell me to play it. He would tell me: act it as if you were talking to me, meaning as naturally as possible. And we did a lot of rehearsals, sometimes five or six times for a single scene. It took a while.
R: Joshua, you mentioned Cassavetes as one of your influences. So you would give general directions for the scene but not follow a precise script?
J: Menashe is a brilliant actor, and you could tell him the emotional idea of what to do, and he could be there for the scene and is great at improvising. But not all actors we had had the same acting skills as Menashe, so for them we would give exact lines. Every actor was different, some of them needed very precise directions. We would give the lines in English, then they would go through a translator, because we had people making sure that they were saying them exactly right. Obviously I didn’t understand it, but I spent my whole career making documentaries in Hindi, in Mandarin, and in countries like Uganda, where I watched people’s faces all day long, not understanding one word of what they said, but still understanding a lot because the body language, the eyes can express so much! It was really enjoyable just to watch Menashe because sometimes I would be like: Menashe do that with your face, don’t do that with your face, use your hands more …
M: “Put down your hands!”
J: Yes, especially the gesticulations, Jews do a lot of big hand motions, which is great in person but on camera looks silly … This is a cinema of the body, more than language. Even though the sound of Yiddish is obviously an important element in the movie.
R: Menashe, could you say a few words about the specific challenges of acting in Yiddish for this movie?
M: I would play each scene in English first, because otherwise Joshua would have no way of understanding what I’m saying. Then he would say “sounds good” and we would play it in Yiddish. But we would argue about the translation from English to Yiddish because we would say: that’s not the way you say it in Yiddish, you have to change it. Sometimes a literal translation doesn’t work. Luckily, we had translators on set to help us with that, and also with general linguistic correctness in Yiddish. Eliezer Niborski was on the set for the first two weeks, and he helped us a lot; he sent me the Stutchkoff dictionary, which I used to prepare for the role. He even appears in the movie, in the scenes at the cemetery and the funeral party. He speaks fluent Yiddish and he has a ponem, a face, and a beard, so we thought we could work with that. He’s even on the poster of the movie [second from the left], which is really funny, because people in the community will try to figure out: who is that guy? But you can still hear that people speak various kinds of Yiddish in the movie: for instance, Eliezer’s son, Ruben, who plays the role of Rieven in the movie, speaks a different Yiddish than I do, his is much more correct because he learned it in his family, who have this incredible passion and dedication for Yiddish. But I tend to be flexible with my use of Yiddish: whenever I talk to someone, I instinctively connect with his Yiddish; so for the movie I tried to speak more YIVO Yiddish, use expressions that I heard my parents or grandparents use, etc.
R: Could you talk a little bit more about your work with Ruben Niborski? His performance was really stunning!
J: Casting is everything in movies. When you don’t have the right actors for a part, there’s no movie. You have to believe them. So the day I met Ruben, I called Menashe and said: Menashe, I have this little boy, let’s put you guys together and see how it works. So Menashe met Ruben and his heart broke, because he saw his own son in Ruben, immediately. What I love about Ruben is that there’s no pretension, he doesn’t want to be a celebrity, he’s one of four kids, he’s a very normal child. But he’s a child, so they can only do so much: I gave him one skittle if he got a take right; if he got a take wrong, he lost the skittle. It got him excited: if he got fifty skittles I gave him a book. He’s very smart, and he loves reading. So I was like a school teacher to him, but was a boss to Menashe. As a director, you have to meet the actor, you can’t expect the actor to come to you, you have to understand them.
R: Joshua, could you talk about some of the technical choices that you made as a filmmaker? I noticed a lot of medium shots and close-ups, very few establishing shots or tracking shots …
J: It was really important for me to give the illusion that you were really present, like a voyeur. We did a lot of choreography where we kept on a medium shot: there are many shots in the film that are 30 seconds to two minutes long, without edits. And that choreography that the camera does with the actor, it creates something that is not just naturalistic: it feels real. It gives the illusion of reality, and I think it helps to sell the sincerity of the film. I wanted you to feel that when Menashe sweats, you know, the shvits, then we see the sweat, that when Menashe gets angry you see his cheeks inflamed. When Rieven gets slapped. You want to feel those moments.
M: I was begging him to have a scene where I cried, I want to do it. No one ever told me that I could do something seriously, like a serious story, not slapstick and jokes. I wanted to prove that I can make myself cry too.
J: We shot an alternative ending where he did cry after the slap, but ended up going for a different ending. Sometimes the obvious emotion is not the right emotion to show.
R: How does your acting relate to your daily life? How much of you, Menashe Lustig, is in the character of Menashe?
M: Probably 95%. 95% of it is true, 5% Joshua touched up a little bit. That’s why it was a particularly difficult process for me, it was full of fartsvayflung … of confusion. My bottom line is: who would have believed that when I stand there and I was fartsvayflt … confused … that one day I would stand on a stage and play out this confusion. It is a kind of… wow. And it is written in the Gemore, in the Talmud: that when Reuben saves Joseph from death, Reuben did not know that the Torah would talk about him, even though it might have given him more courage to do the right thing. 1 1 “Rabbi Isaac ben Merion said, ‘The verse [‘and he passed to her parched grain; and she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over’] teaches you that if one carries out a religious duty, one should do it with a whole heart. For had Reuben known that the Holy One, blessed be He, would have written concerning him, ‘And Reuben heard it and delivered [Joseph] out of their hand’ (Gen. 37:21), he would have brought him on his shoulder back to his father.’” Ruth Rabbah, part 6, “The Parashiyyot: Parasha Five”, to Ruth 2:14 (7 A-B). As translated by Jacob Neusner, Ruth Rabbah: An Analytical Translation (Brown Judaic Studies 183), 1989: Scholars Press, Atlanta, GA, p. 127. Many thanks to Menashe Lustig for providing us with the exact reference to this quote! That means that a guy sometimes stands in a situation in which he doesn’t know what’s going on, he doesn’t know whether it could be better, that he’s a step away from the end of the tunnel, and that his story could be an example for thousands of people, make history. And I believe, even though I took a gamble to make this movie, it could be in a good way. Like The Fiddler on the Roof: people might try to copy that, to make it in an authentic way. For example, I tried to act using my hands sometimes, but Joshua told me: “You should know that what you wanted to express I saw it on your face. Put down your hands. Just make little gestures, that’s great.” And I can’t believe that people actually liked that.
R: How challenging was it to shoot a movie in the Brooklyn Hasidic community? You mentioned that you had to work in three different supermarkets to stand for the one that appears in the movie, because you kept getting kicked out of them?
J: In the ultra-Orthodox world, there is no gain for being in a movie, all the rabbis tell you not to do it, all the elders …
M: So far! Maybe this will change things a lot.
J: So because of that, there was no incentive, and often we annoyed them … You know, cinema … you have to turn off the sound, the lights have to be … let’s just say that we impose a lot when we make cinema. When you’re watching cinema you can’t really tell, you might think that we just showed up with a camera for four minutes and that’s it, but it actually requires a lot of planning. So people we were working with would get annoyed. First of all, many actors that we cast and we thought were really great actors didn’t show up to the set because they were pressured not to come; Menashe was pressured not to come as well … there’s just this idea that anything you do with this, it doesn’t matter what the content is, just by being on camera it’s going to be bad. But I’m used to shooting documentaries, so I’m more OK with flexibility, changes of plans … For example, one of my favorite scenes, where they are in the park together playing: we lost a day and we just made that scene up. The scene where Menashe is bathing the little chicklet and talks about why the Jews keep clean, that’s very symbolic but it’s also a result of this process: we had time and we would improvise because this movie wasn’t about the plot. The plot just allowed us to be there, to experience what life for an ultra-Orthodox person is like. No one knows, no outsider has ever seen it.
M: In my community people know me as a top actor, I’m acting at Purim, at Sukkot. But they wouldn’t expect people like you to ask me questions and put that in the papers, they wouldn’t like that either. They don’t want me to be the talker of them. But my goal is not to work against the community or to fight against it. I will not sacrifice everything for my acting career either, because for me being part of the community is much more important. It means a lot to be together with them. But I think there can be a negotiation in which I can also use my talent; we need to reach a settlement. Again, I don’t want to oppose the community, I would rather try to change things respectfully from inside.
R: Do you think the movie could be shown in a community setting?
M: No. I would say it’s kosher for non-Orthodox Jews. Even the Lubavitchers wouldn’t mind. But my community feels differently about it. It won’t be shown in my community but I don’t feel guilty for making it because I didn’t break any rules, touch women, anything like this. It won’t be sold in Judaica stores, so that’s my negotiation.
R: Do you think Menashe could help foster a dialogue between non-observant and frum Jews?
M: I would say that this movie hopes to achieve a lot of things for the Jewish community, for the Yiddish language … There’s hope, and we shouldn’t give up. Mir farshtayen zikh. Mir zaynen menshn mit a harts. [We understand each other. We are people with a heart].
R: What about your next projects, plans for the future?
M: I have lots of ideas, you just have to find the right people to work together. For me it’s not davke in Yiddish. I would be ready to play in English. If it goes well and I don’t get problems with the community, I’m ready to do another one. If not, I’ll have to change things a little bit. Maybe do something in a different style.
J: We are going to make a horror movie based on the Dybbuk I think [giggles].