Yiddish drama ‘Menashe’ opens lens on Hasidic Brooklyn – Jweekly.com

Posted By on August 9, 2017

On a sidewalk crowded with people moving at the pace of a typical New York day, nobody stands out.

Eventually a man appears in the back of the frame who gradually attracts our attention. Theres nothing extraordinary about him except hes a bulky man, and hes laboring more than anyone else in the summer heat.

Hes wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, black vest and tsitsis, and our initial impression is of an overgrown child. Its the perfect introduction to the character Menashe and the film Menashe, a Yiddish-language drama shot in secret in the Hasidic community.

We have the sense that writer-director Joshua Z. Weinsteins camera could have followed any face in the crowd. Thats an unusual feeling to have in a fiction film, but there are 8 million stories in the naked city, after all.

The effect, though, is to imbue Menashe from the outset with the requisite naturalism for a riveting character study of a working-class Hasid on the margins of both his religious community and society at large.

The 82-minute film screened only once in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival but will open Friday, Aug. 11 at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco.

The motor of the film is Menashes ham-fisted determination to raise his adolescent son, Rieven, by himself in the months following his wifes premature death. His tenacity is understandable, for the boy and Jewish songs and scripture are Menashes only interests.

The neighborhood rabbi, the ruv, while not unsympathetic, maintains that Rieven be raised in a proper home with a father and a mother. Given the unhappiness of his first, arranged marriage, Menashe (beautifully played by Menashe Lustig) is in no hurry to remarry.

So the boy lives with Menashes annoyingly self-assured brother-in-law Eizik (the excellent Yoel Weisshaus) and his family in a nice home instead of at Menashes no-frills walk-up apartment. Rieven doesnt mind, but its a continuing affront to Menashes self-respect and sense of responsibility.

Menashe is the exception among the many films about Orthodox Jews in that it does not involve a tug-of-war between tradition and the modern world, or the conflict between secularism and faith.

The central dynamic in Menashe is class, which gives the viewer an unusual angle from which to view the ultra-Orthodox community. This film scarcely visits a yeshiva, and the Hasidim with the long, black coats are supporting characters although it is plain that they are at the center of community life.

Menashe, for his part, cant get any respect. He works in a grocery market, a job with no status (regardless of how exceedingly moral he is) and low pay.

Theres a picaresque scene where hes enticed into having a 40-ouncer of cheap beer in the back of the store with a couple of Hispanic co-workers. Though the language barrier prevents Menashe from bonding with them past a certain point, he seems more comfortable in his own skin with them than he is with the Jews in his circle (and their judgments and expectations).

Our sympathies are with Menashe, of course, as theyd be with any single parent struggling to make ends meet and get a little bit ahead. But hes far from perfect, and that smart move by Weinstein is what elevates the picture to the level of pathos.

Menashe is short-tempered, stubborn, perpetually late, fond of the occasional drink(s) and always playing catch-up. Hes the last to recognize that his character flaws along with his circumstances make him the biggest obstacle to establishing a stable life with Rieven.

Menashe is rife with the small truths of life every father disappoints his son at some point, and vice versa and the amusing, unexpected moments that occur every day. Its a warm, generous film that doesnt shy from sentimentality but doesnt insult its audience, either.

Ultimately, it introduces us to a memorable character whose resilience is, in its way, inspiring. Menashe is a small film, but its a special one.

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Yiddish drama 'Menashe' opens lens on Hasidic Brooklyn - Jweekly.com

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