Life in Brooklyn’s Chassidic community

Menashe Lustig stars in Menashe.

WITH more than a decade of experience in the film industry, mostly in documentaries, director Joshua Weinstein has made his first feature-length narrative movie, Menashe.

What’s surprising is that Weinstein, a secular Jew, has made the movie entirely in Yiddish about Chassidic Jews in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, making it one of the first full-length Yiddish language films to hit the big screen in more than 70 years.

Menashe, which enjoyed critical acclaim at this year’s Sundance and Berlin film festivals, is the opening night film at this year’s Jewish International Film Festival (JIFF) in Melbourne on October 25 and in Sydney on October 26

“I love going into small, closed societies and trying to understand and to represent them, and to tell all sides of their stories – the good and the bad – with honesty,” said Weinstein.

Although Weinstein, 34, has wanted to do a film about the Chassidim for a long time, he was not sure at the outset about the topic. So he began to spend time among them in Brooklyn, to gain their trust and become familiar with their world.

“You can’t cast a film like this in the usual way – you put on a yarmulke, hang out and show up every single day,” he said. “I was researching and meeting people. I was also trying to find actors because you can only make a film if you can cast it.”

A minor miracle occurred when Weinstein and internet star Menashe Lustig crossed paths.

Lustig explained: “I had been acting locally in the Chassidic community in a non-professional way when Weinstein approached me after he saw me appear in a short Chassidic commercial.

“We talked together and he said he’d like to make a film with me.”

As Weinstein got to know Lustig and began to hear the details of his life, the filmmaker realised he had found his story.

A recent widower, Lustig had been pressured by his religious community of Skver Chassidim to yield the rearing of his nine-year-old son to others until he remarried.

Menashe tells the story of a 30-something widower and single father, and contrasts the title character’s urge towards self-sufficiency with the demands of traditionalism in a small, tightly-knit religious community.

“The whole movie is a 95 per cent true story,” said Lustig. “We just touched it up a little bit.”

The film focuses on the decision by the community’s rabbi that Menashe yield the rearing of his son, Rieven, to the family of his late wife’s brother.

The decision causes Menashe much anguish, which is made considerably worse by his brother-in-law’s severe and self-righteous demeanour.

In the eyes of the community, Menashe, a grocery clerk, is a schlemiel. He bucks authority but, at the same time, does not carry himself in a way that garners respect.

Menashe doesn’t want to marry just anyone, however, and he wants to prove he can adequately provide a home for his son.

“It is an emotionally true story,” said Weinstein. “The film expresses how Menashe Lustig actually felt when he went through what he did.”

With the exception of a few lines in English and Spanish – this is Brooklyn, after all – the film’s dialogue is entirely in Yiddish.

“The sheer challenge of making a new and unique film about Chassidim in Yiddish was very exciting,” said Weinstein, adding that there were many challenges that he faced while making the movie.

The film’s production schedule was frequently thrown off schedule when some actors who originally signed up, including Lustig, were pressured by their communities not to participate.

Fortunately, Weinstein said his background making documentaries, which often depends on bending to the unexpected, gave him the flexibility to see the process through.

Another challenge was that Weinstein does not speak Yiddish.

“You couldn’t really make this film in English,” he said. “If it weren’t going to be in Yiddish, then why not just make Home Alone 7?”

Much of the script was written in English before filming started, with translators providing a Yiddish version. Lustig developed some scenes by improvising in English – so Weinstein could understand – then would translate them into Yiddish. After that, with the help of translators, the dialogue was again reviewed carefully.

The accuracy of the words was not taken lightly. In post-production, a team of translators worked on the subtitles and many debates over word choices ensued.

“It was almost like translating the Talmud in some way,” said Weinstein.

JTA

Menashe screens at JIFF’s opening night in Melbourne on October 25, in Sydney on October 26, in Perth on November 8 and also during the Brisbane and Canberra seasons. Bookings: www.jiff.com.au.

REPORT by Charles Munitz