A factual fictional look inside Brooklyn’s Hasidic community – The Boston Globe

Posted By on August 11, 2017

Menashe Lusting (left) with Menashe director Joshua Weinstein.

Its hard to make a documentary when your subjects wont talk to you. So veteran documentary director Joshua Z. Weinstein decided to make his scripted-film debut with Menashe, a contemporary father-son drama set in the Yiddish-speaking, ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community of Borough Park in Brooklyn.

You cant make a doc in the Hasidic world. You cant run around the streets with a camera; people will yell and scream. Authenticity was going to make or break this movie. If it didnt feel 100 percent real, it would fail like a hot gefilte fish rolling down a pavement, said Weinstein, who was born in New York and raised in a liberal Jewish community in New Jersey. But it was difficult. No one has seen a film crew in Borough Park. Some liked it; some did not.

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He didnt have a screenplay when he started; just the desire to capture modern-day Hasidic life using non-actors in the spirit of Italian neorealism and pioneering indie directors like John Cassavetes.

I just knew I wanted to make a fiction film in the ultra-orthodox world with non-actors, and write the roles for them. I also wanted to tell a story so specific and nuanced that you could not make it up unless you knew about it, Weinstein recalled during a recent return to the city where he once studied filmmaking at Boston University. His credits since then include the 2013 short I Beat Mike Tyson, the story of Dorchester heavyweight Kevin McBride and his upset victory over Tyson in 2005.

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Weinstein found his feature film subject when he met Menashe Lusting, a Hasidic comic and actor. He fashioned a story that mirrored aspects of Lustings own life, and cast him to play the lead character.

On film, Menashe is a widower who works in a grocery store while trying to regain custody of his young son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) from his brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) and his family. Menashes insulated community has strict religious codes requiring that he remarry to resume full fatherhood. Though Menashe pleads his case with Eizik and the neighborhood rabbi (Meyer Schwartz), hes at such a low point that even he seems to question his paternal abilities until he violates the arrangement and spends time with Rieven.

When I was looking through tapes, Menashe showed so much humor and so much pain at the same time. He was the sad clown we hear so much about, said Weinstein. I just knew right away he could carry a film and be brilliant and people would want to watch him. His stuff is Chaplin-esque.

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Joshua was searching to make a Yiddish film but I was searching to approach someone who understands my language; someone who understands what I have in my head. He got it without even talking, said Lusting, who speaks with a Yiddish accent and dresses in traditional Hasidic attire.

But even with Lusting by his side, the residents of Borough Park eyed Weinstein with suspicion.

Working in documentary for a dozen years, including traveling in India, [I learned] to be respectful of their society. You can be critical but you have to be respectful, the filmmaker said.

The lack of cooperation from many in the community made production more difficult but Weinstein was prepared for obstacles.

Nothing happened the way it was supposed to. But coming from the doc world, I wasnt afraid of surprises. I was ready to roll with the punches because I knew I had Menashe and Ruben, so no matter what happened, I could write something and theyd hold the film together, he said.

For both filmmaker and star, Menashe is personal. Lusting sees it as an opportunity to expose ultra-orthodox Judaism to the world of art and cinema. I posted the first clip of a Hasidic on YouTube in 2006. Now there are many. Im more open minded. I believe there has to be something like [Menashe]. Many Hasidic have never even seen a movie. They think [Menashe] will be negative. No; welcome to 2017. Its for everyone; it connects everyone.

Menashe, which opens here on Friday, is also Weinsteins tribute to his own family history. His great grandparents immigrated to Brooklyn from the shtetls of Poland. His grandparents, though born in Brooklyn, grew up speaking Yiddish and Weinstein enjoyed hearing it when he visited them.

Im not saying this film will revive Yiddish cinema thats not my goal, Weinstein said. I just loved that this was the language my grandparents spoke and it connects me and Menashe.

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A factual fictional look inside Brooklyn's Hasidic community - The Boston Globe

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