Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a widower with a young son (Rieven, played by Ruben Niborski) whom he wishes to raise as a single father. Unfortunately, that’s not an acceptable choice in the Brooklyn Hasidic Jewish community in which Menashe lives, where the rule is that all children should be brought up in a two-parent household. The community’s solution is that Rieven should be brought up in the household of his married uncle (Eizik, played by Yoel Weisshaus), but Menashe can’t bear to be separated from his son. Such is the dilemma at the heart of Menashe, a feature film directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein, who also shares a writing credit for this film with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed.
Menashe is Weinstein’s first feature film, but he’s an old hand in the film business, having worked a variety of industry jobs, primarily on documentaries. That background is worth knowing because despite being a scripted film, Menashe often feels like a documentary. In fact, one appeal of this film (which has been much hyped in the publicity materials for it, which claims it was shot “undercover”) is the chance it offers to see a bit of a community normally closed to outsiders. I’m not sure if that’s a great thing, because if people want their privacy, an outsider violating it in the service of one’s career (and Weinstein is not Hasidic—he doesn’t even speak Yiddish) seems, at the very least, a shonde. So is exploiting the Disney principle (crystallized in Aladdin) of making characters with whom the audience is meant to sympathize (Menashe, in this case) look more familiar to audiences than those on the other side (Eizik and the more conventional members of the community). Thanks to general appearance and sartorial choices, Menashe will strike most non-Hasidic audiences as less foreign more relatable than Eizik, before either character has said or done anything, thus stacking the deck in Menashe’s favor.
Setting aside those particular ethical concerns, Menashe offers much food for thought. The overall theme might be summed up as how much leeway an individual should be allowed in a community that places a high value on conformity. A second theme is whether a parent is always the best choice for bringing up a child. In Hollywood movies, we’re used to parental love triumphing over all, but Weinstein is brave enough to question that received wisdom. Much of raising a child, after all, is consistently taking care of little things—from keeping appropriate food in the house to seeing that the child does his homework and gets to school on time—and generally providing an atmosphere in which the child feels safe. Love is not enough—you also have to master the practical stuff, and that sometimes means putting the child’s needs before your own.
On the question of why Menashe stays in a community that expects him to let someone else raise his son, it quickly becomes clear that the answer is practical as well as spiritual. He wouldn’t survive anywhere else, and while he’s looked down on by the other members of the community, they do support him economically, from direct contributions to a job in a grocery store which he manages to keep only because the manager is also a member of the same community, and the apartment from which he is not evicted despite being behind on the rent. Over the course of the film, you can also see the wisdom of this particular community insisting on two-parent households, as children spend their days at same-sex schools and may have little experience of members of the opposite sex outside their homes. Overall, Menashe is not a great film, but it’s certainly an interesting one that should provoke many interesting discussions. | Sarah Boslaugh