How insular a community is may be measured by its share of members who wish to appear on camera. When a casting call went out to New York’s ultra-Orthodox community, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands, to appear in Menashe, a feature film set in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, only sixty people showed up. “I would call it un-casting,” Joshua Z. Weinstein, the film’s director, told an interviewer. Even after they agreed to participate in the film, many of the actors soon dropped out, citing rabbinical prohibitions or cold feet. A full cast list has yet to be released; the filmmakers are worried that even extras could face excommunication.
Menashe’s clandestine aspect—it was shot in secret entirely within the Hasidic community it depicts—has at least one salutary side effect: it lends the story an understated, naturalistic quality that might have been missing in a flashier production. That quality is heightened by the fact that most of its cast members are first-time actors, and many had never stepped inside a movie theater. Menashe is spoken completely in Yiddish, except for one brief but consequential scene in English (to which I’ll return). It loosely tells the real-life story of Menashe Lustig, the ultra-Orthodox actor playing the title character. Having been widowed for a year, Menashe wants to raise his ten-year-old son, Rieven, by himself. But his religious faith won’t allow it. As the Book of Genesis says: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Until Menashe remarries, a rabbi decrees, Rieven is to be left in the custody of his uncle and aunt. But Menashe doesn’t wish to remarry, and the rabbi gives him a week to prove himself as a single father.
The plot takes place during that week, as Menashe, a devoted father but a helpless klutz, bumbles his way through his parental duties and his low-paying job behind the cash register of an ultra-Orthodox-owned supermarket. He is always short on money and on the verge of being fired. He gets drunk on a night out with his son, oversleeps, then gives Rieven Coke and cake for breakfast. Our desire to see Menashe win custody of Rieven is complicated by the fact that he is far from an ideal father. When Menashe’s stringent brother-in-law blames him for having neglected his wife when she fell ill, Menashe doesn’t dispute him.
Still, we find ourselves rooting for Menashe. It helps that Lustig is a born actor, with a rare ability to project comic expressiveness at key dramatic moments. One of the film’s most riveting scenes is without dialogue: we simply watch as Menashe moves about his cramped apartment, knocking over a plastic cup here, scratching his belly there. His physicality is thoroughly commanding—like a paunchy Chaplin with a yarmulke. So embedded are we within…
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