Borough Park in New York contains the largest population of Orthodox Jews outside of Israel, where the community is strict in its following of the Torah. It was here that documentary filmmaker Joshua Z Weinstein (I Beat Mike Tyson) would meet the man who would become the inspiration for his fictional film, Menashe. His name is, funnily enough, Menashe Lustig, a greengrocer whose son was moved to a foster home after Lustig’s wife passed away. The community’s strict adherence to their scripture forbids a man to raise a child on his own, and so, until Lustig remarries, he will be unable to take care of his son. It’s a story ripe for the cinematic treatment.
Written and directed by Weinstein, who opted to film the picture entirely in Yiddish, Menashe stars the aforementioned Lustig as a largely fictional version of himself. Having lost his wife sometime before the film starts, Menashe’s son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), now lives with his brother-in-law’s family. Strict in how he raises his nephew, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) doesn’t understand why Menashe doesn’t just do the right thing and remarry. Menashe faces pressure to find a new wife in every facet of his life, from his place of work right through to his synagogue. And despite it all, Menashe insists that, regardless of what the Torah might say, he is more than capable of raising his son.
Whilst this idea of how to rear a child may raise a few eyebrows with in the larger secular community, Menashe is not a tale about a man being brow beaten by his religion ““ far from it. Menashe might be slightly more ‘modern’ than his peers ““ he rolls his eyes when a potential new wife tuts at the thought of women being allowed to drive ““ but he is a deeply religious man. He understands what is expected of him, which, conversely, encourages him to dig his heels in further. During a polite but heated debate with his rabbi, Menashe points out that even if he were to remarry, their rules dictate that Rieven’s new stepmother would never be allowed to touch him. The conjecture here being that even with two parents, the greengrocer feels his son would still only be getting the same amount of love he does now via one parent. It’s at moments like this, coupled with Lustig’s natural performance, we want to reach out and reassure him that he’s doing the right thing and fighting the good fight.
However, in the same way Weinstein refuses to demonise or belittle the beliefs of his subjects, he also doesn’t try and paint Menashe as the perfect father. We’re told regularly that he is late to everything and barely has two cents to rub together. Less than a day after whisking Rieven away from his brother in law in an attempt to prove himself, Menashe struggles with the simple task of getting up in time to feed his son before school. Sure, he’s a loveable dolt, but feeding Rieven Coca-Cola and leftover cake is hardly the cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast. What Weinstein suggests is that, yes, Menashe deserves the right to look after his son, but equally, he also needs to grow up and take responsibility for his actions.
Despite some great performances from a cast of non-actors and Weinstein’s documentary eye lending the film a realistic hue, Menashe does struggle as it approaches its denouement. The film is a little over 80 minutes and yet it seems to waste time in a wobbly third act. Menashe receiving wisdom from his non-Jewish work colleagues, for example, is a moment that doesn’t really feel as though it’s going anywhere.
That said, Menashe is still, ultimately, a sweet-natured film that affords an opportunity for its audience to peek into a world that they perhaps wouldn’t do so ordinarily. It doesn’t offer up any easy answers and its grey morals make it all the more humanistic; come the final scene you may feel ambivalent about the decisions Menashe makes. Regardless of our background or our religion, we are all the same, trying to make the world right for ourselves and, hopefully, for each other.