Menashe: Where Religious Life and “Real Life” are One

By: Chani Grossman  |  September 14, 2017

I was very excited to see the film Menashe ever since I first discovered the existence of a mainstream (if indie) film entirely in Yiddish aboutand acted by people of the chassidic community; I became even more excited when I read the reviews, and discovered that it was supposed to be excellent. Reviewers raved about the lead actor’s skill and magnetic presence, even as an amateur performing in his first film; they admired the cinematography and depictions of chassidic life in Borough Park, and they approvingly discussed the simplicity, yet universality of the plot. Yet, there was another thing that intrigued menearly every review I read emphasized the movie’s status as a window into another, forbidden, unknown world. Some said things like “this movie will make you realize that the chassidim are people too!” with very little irony. The reviewers who seem to all live in New York mused on the ubiquity, and yet inscrutability of this cloistered sect living in their midst, and seemed to welcome the film as an opportunity to prove that yes, they really are people just like you and me.

I was a bit bemused by this as I walked into a local screening of the film with some friends. We were all religious Jewish girls, and would obviously be walking into the film with different conceptions than the movie reviewerseven if we ourselves weren’t chassidic, we were at least intimately familiar with Jewish life, as well as Chassidic life, to whatever extent. After all, we were seeing the film at a theater only a five minute drive from lead actor Menashe Lustig’s hometown of New Square, an all-Chassidic village. We were much more closely connected to the culture of the film than most of the reviewers. It made me wonder, What would the movie be like stripped of the forbidden-world mystique?

We walked out thoroughly convinced that our Orthodox Jewish backgrounds were a massive plus when it came to enjoying the film, rather than stripping the movie of its shtick. (This, incidentally, was probably applicable to most people who saw the movieeveryone at the screening I attended was visibly Orthodox, and I have heard that many other audiences of the film were largely Orthodox as well.) While none of us speak Yiddish, we were able to understand just enough to know that the subtitles were bare-bones, with the actual Yiddish dialogue much richer and more interesting. We got jokes that were either poorly translated, or just outside the context of an average American viewer. We knew the significance of the rituals which were shown, such as a Lag Ba’omer celebration, which is shown without a word of explanationsure to be a shock to anyone who has no idea why a mass of frocked chassidim would be carousing around a massive bonfire on a New York City street. (That said, one of us did not recognize that the main character was in a mikvah, instead thinking that the movie had some reason for showing him in the bath.) We knew the significance of the yohrzeit memorial, which is the central event around which the film unfolds, and understood the references to bugs in lettuce, running in late to Maariv, and parts of the characters’ daily routines, from negel vasser to krias shema.

The film itself, as the reviews mention, is extremely well-made and evocative. The actors, all amateurs, and from a variety of backgrounds (the actor playing the rebbe is a taxi driver; the actor playing Eizik once modeled for American Apparel in a shtreimel; the actor playing Rieven, the only non-Chassidic actor in the film, comes from a rare family of secular Israeli Yiddishists), combine forces to make the world feel as real as our own world’s Borough Park. If I have one complaint about an artistic element of the film, it was the cinematography; it was beautiful, but at times hyperfocused and claustrophobic in a way which made it difficult to appreciate the characters’ settings, something frustrating when part of the premise of a film is to expose viewers to a new setting.

But mostly, the film excels in the simplicity, and yet overarching humanity of its story. Despite having jumped into a world so at odds with that of the majority of its viewers, it presents a story which is universal a father’s love for his son, and a ne’er-do-well’s struggle against the tide. Menashe, the main character, is carefully sketched-out, and manages to be both extremely sympathetic, yet not entirely likableone can understand why people are endlessly frustrated with him, and don’t think he can handle something as simple as a memorial dinner for his late wife. And while the circumstances which led Menashe to lose custody of his son after his wife’s death seem extreme and unrelatable to the average viewer, who might not be able to relate to the tremendous influence of a rebbe in the life of a chassid, they are not unique to someone in a chassidic community.  It’s easy to imagine that even in a more typical and less insular setting, someone with Menashe’s careless ways and straitened circumstances might be seen by others as unfit to raise his child. (Incidentally, a contributing factor to Menashe Lustig’s ability to emotionally portray his role must be the fact that, while his character’s personality is apparently quite different from his own, his character’s life story and the movie’s plot is based on Lustig’s own life. Lustig himself lost his wife, lost custody of his son because he is unmarried, and works in a supermarket, just like the character he portrays.) Menashe and his son Rieven do normal father-son things (as well as a few abnormal ones, like raising a chicken, and making grocery deliveries), even if they’re wearing Chassidic garb and speaking Yiddish while doing them. The film even has the obligatory “single-man-can’t-cook-his-own-food” scene, and it’s just as catastrophic as it would be in any similar movie, even if the food in question is potato kugel. Essentially, it’s a regular movie that just happens to be about chassidim.

In a way, this makes the movie somewhat different than films like Ushpizin and Fill the Void, which often come to mind when people think “films about Orthodox Jews” or “films about Chassidim.” Both of those have Judaism and Jewish ritual central in their focus in Ushpizin, the main character’s religious feelings contribute greatly to the plot and conflicts of the film, and in Fill the Void, the plot centers around  the feelings raised by a rare Jewish ritual. Menashe, however, includes Jewish ritual, but only incidentally, because the characters happen to be Jewish. Jewishness is merely part of the background of the film, and while people will give Talmudic reasoning for decisions, they’re generally decisions they would have made anyway. In a sense, that made the film feel authentic for a religious person, things always happen in life that have nothing to do with religion in and of themselves; however, since religion itself is such an integral part of one’s life, there are traces of it throughout. No wonder the reviewers said that it made Chassidim seem “real,” when we all knew that already.  Menashe reflects the realities of religious life, where faith and ritual are ever-present forces even in the most “normal,” “typical” life events. If Menashe is a Jewish movie at all, then it’s less a movie about Judaism and more a movie about being Jewish, if in a very specific way.