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 companion piece: How to Shoot an Impossible Movie: An Interview with Menashe Lustig and Joshua Z Weinstein at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.
We may have been waiting for meshiakh for a while, but the wait for a new Yiddish-language feature film felt nearly as long. Menashe, which premiered within a couple days’ interval at the 2017 Sundance and Berlin International Film Festivals to public and critical acclaim, is the first Yiddish-language feature film starring native Yiddish speakers to be produced in more than sixty years (with the notable exception of A Gesheft/The Deal, which remains the sole representative of the somewhat niche genre of the amateur Hasidic action movie). It is also the first ever Yiddish-language film to have been selected for the Berlin International Film Festival since its founding in 1951.
Menashe is the result of a felicitous encounter between Hasidic comedian Menashe Lustig and liberal director Joshua Z Weinstein. For both of them, shooting this movie involved significant risks. Menashe Lustig’s first foray into independent cinema required no small amount of courage on his part, as it was frowned upon by the highly conservative Skverer Hasidic community of New Square, New York, to which he belongs; New Square residents typically don’t own a television set or a radio, and Menashe had never entered a movie theater before attending his own film premiere at Sundance, which is also probably a first in cinema history. Conversely, Joshua’s decision to shoot a movie in the potentially unfavorable environment of Hasidic Brooklyn, with non-professional actors, and entirely in Yiddish—a language that he does not understand—was an artistic and financial gamble that must have raised quite a few eyebrows in the film industry.
But somehow, the Hasidic Yiddish-speaking actor of Purim-shpiels and slapstick YouTube videos and the Boston University-educated documentary filmmaker found each other; their collaboration gave birth to a new genre of Yiddish film, which one could call “ethnographic Yiddish.” It is distinct from the other uses of Yiddish in contemporary movies delineated by Rebecca Margolis in “New Yiddish Film and the Transvernacular”: neither a purely vernacular project (Hasidic Yiddish-speaking production for a community audience), nor a historical reconstitution requiring “vehicular matching”, nor a form of “transvernacular Yiddish” where none of the cast and crew would be native Yiddish speakers, but would use Yiddish dialogue as a marker of cultural identity.
Menashe is a docufiction, a film in which non-professional actors are cast in roles closely related to their actual daily lives, a genre spearheaded by Robert Flaherty in the 1920s and favored by contemporary filmmakers like Pedro Costa or Jia Zhangke. The film crew, including director Joshua Z Weinstein, is composed of non-Yiddish speaking “outsiders”; the non-professional actors of Menashe are all native speakers of Yiddish belonging to the various Hasidic groups (with the notable exception of the actor who plays Menashe’s son Rieven, Ruben Niborski, son of Eliezer and grandson of Yitskhok Niborski; a non-Hasidic Yiddishist family). Menashe is mostly driven by a documentary impulse, using a fictional narration in order to allow the spectators to experience as closely and realistically as possible the daily life of the visible but singularly secretive Hasidic community of Borough Park, Brooklyn.
The choice of using Yiddish throughout the movie also derives from this documentary impulse, and is meant to contribute to the movie’s overall verisimilitude. The dialogue is mostly translated from the original English script (or first improvised in English) into Yiddish, with the help of translators and direct input from the actors themselves. Due to this linguistic and cultural discrepancy between the cast and the crew, the question of whether Menashe actually belongs to Yiddish cinema or should rather be considered a “U.S. independent movie in Yiddish” remains moot: typically, the team behind the interwar classics of Yiddish cinema would be composed of native speakers. But “Yiddish cinema” never had a fixed definition, always existing as a transient, interstitial phenomenon grafted onto various national film industries; directors like Michal Waszynski (The Dybbuk, 1937) or Edgar G. Ulmer (American Matchmaker, 1940) produced the vast majority of their films in languages other than Yiddish, respectively Polish and English. The cooperation between a native Yiddish-speaking cast and a non-Yiddish-speaking crew in Menashe could simply correspond to a new configuration in the history of Yiddish cinema’s somewhat haphazard mode of production.
Relatively little happens in Menashe. There are no exceptional or dramatic events, but rather a series of vignettes and micro-dramas: Menashe is taunted by his boss for spoiling a large shipment of gefilte fish, plays with his son in the park, gets up, ritually washes his hands, goes to work, and so on. The temporality of the movie is cyclical rather than linear, marked only by the funeral banquet on the anniversary of the death of Menashe’s wife, which corresponds to a somewhat botched attempt at coming to terms with a traumatic event that estranged him from his family, his community, and his rabbi. According to the laws of the community, children cannot be raised by a single parent: as a widower, Menashe cannot raise his son alone, who is temporarily placed in the care of the family of Menashe’s brother-in-law. Menashe is urged to remarry as soon as possible; matchmakers attempt to find a suitable match for him, but he doesn’t seem too keen on the idea, and just wants to live together with his son. This conflict gives to Menashe’s fate a particular sense of poignancy: Menashe is both a regular Hasid who works at a kosher supermarket and scrupulously sticks to halakhic rules, and a bit of a rebel (a punk even, in Hasidic terms), who tucks his peyes behind his ears and wears a simple shirt and yarmulke combo instead of the customary long coat and hat sported by other male Hasidim. The community, on the other hand, doesn’t respond too kindly to Menashe’s oddball behavior. Throughout the movie, Menashe is told to get a grip (and, most importantly, a coat and a hat), taunted, called a shlemil and a shlimazl: a loser.
The awkward, clueless, sweaty, but eminently loveable mess that is Menashe is of course in the best tradition of Jewish (and Yiddish) anti-heroes, constantly shifting between witty banter, emotional tragedy, and slapstick comedy: spilling the gefilte fish, burning the cake, but often on the verge of breaking into tears. But one never feels the need to call the cultural cliché police, as Menashe never lapses into folkloristic kitsch. Menashe Lustig’s exceptional acting always strikes the right note, and he delivers a virtuosic performance: he is equally convincing in moments of playfulness and joyful levity—breaking into animal noises in the shul to explain a Talmudic passage to his son—and at the bottom of despair, as his son is repeatedly taken away from him. Ruben Niborski delivers a stunning performance throughout the movie. The obvious on-screen chemistry between him and Menashe Lustig adds a light, graceful touch and gives Menashe a freshness and spontaneity that balances the more dramatic aspects of the script.
Yoni Brook and Joshua Z Weinstein’s perfectly choreographed camerawork greatly enhances the direct emotional impact of the movie. We are constantly “in immersion”, sticking to the characters as closely as possible. No pans, tracking shots, or establishing shots: we get little sense of the surrounding environment, the streets of Brooklyn, or even the general layout of Menashe’s home or of the supermarket in which he works. Rather, Menashe’s fluid, unhurried montage leads us down a constant stream of medium shots and close-ups: we get a slightly claustrophobic sense of the urgency of the character’s immediate concerns, and of his being part of a cultural and symbolic bubble, of a tight-knit and closed community whose spatial coordinates happen to overlap with contemporary Brooklyn, but whose existence seems to take place on a different plane.
In that sense, Menashe constitutes a very particular kind of New York movie. The big city is always present, but on the edge of the frame, by glimpses or short bursts: significantly, the only time we get to see the Manhattan skyline, it seems blurry and remote, as the camera focuses on Menashe and his son Rieven lounging in Prospect Park. Intermittently, members of other communities burst into the frame: Asian fruit sellers wave at Rieven on the street, Menashe shares a beer with his Spanish-speaking co-workers (who invariably address him as gordito, “fatty”) at the kosher supermarket. But these fleeting encounters only emphasize the idiosyncratic nature and relative disconnectedness of the Hasidic world. One of the most fascinating aspects of Menashe is arguably to provide a hands-on illustration of what Ernst Bloch called non-simultaneity, by showing how a separate social sphere that seems to abide by its own temporality can live on today in the heart of twenty-first-century New York.
Such insular non-simultaneity actively shapes the reality experienced by Menashe. His interests sometimes clash with traditional religious rules (the ban on single-parent families, the pressure for him to remarry against his will); but as he goes around in somewhat panicked circles on the edge of his Hasidic community, he never seriously considers leaving it. Quite the opposite: Menashe describes a centripetal trajectory towards acceptance and reconciliation. The film opens on a static shot of a busy Brooklyn street, full of Hasidim on a pre-Shabbat shopping spree. A man appears in the crowd: he is not wearing a hat nor a coat, visually setting him apart from other Hasidim. The camera slowly starts to follow him, and we understand that we are going to be told the story of this slightly oddball character. In the closing shot of the movie, the same operation is done in reverse, and we lose Menashe in the crowd around the same street corner, as the camera grinds to a halt on a static shot. It is the same portly Hasid, but with a major difference: he’s now wearing a spanking new coat and hat. Menashe now seems to be toeing the line. Or at least, we hope that he’s gotten himself out of trouble.
Director: Joshua Z Weinstein
Screenplay: Joshua Z Weinstein, Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed
Director of Photography: Yoni Brook, Joshua Z Weinstein
Editor: Scott Cummings
Music: Dag Rosenkvist, Aaron Martin
Producers: Alex Lipschultz, Traci Carlson, Joshua Z Weinstein, Danny Finkelmann, Yoni Brook