The Hasidim, extremely religious Jews known for their reclusiveness and distinctive clothing, are rarely represented on screen. Their beliefs and values put them at odds with secular culture, meaning they’re usually seen from an outsider’s perspective—and when they are seen with an insider’s eye, it’s almost always that of someone running away from the community.
Menashe, written, shot, and directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein, a documentary cinematographer by trade, takes place entirely within a Hasidic community and focuses on the titular character, a hapless 30-something widower, as he desperately tries to recover custody of his son, forced from him by Jewish law. Filmed in Yiddish, it’s a sober drama (and sometimes comedy) about balancing the demands of community, desire, and God, one that embeds us in the life of a religious man trying to do his best to become a mensch.
Fleeing the heat of Manhattan summer in a café in Soho, I spoke with Weinstein, a self-described punk rocker with a massive smile and a mop of dark brown hair, about realism, authenticity, and the difficulties of filming one of the most cloistered communities in New York.
Have you ever done any documentaries in the Hasidic community before?
No. Because it’s not possible actually. To do something as authentic as this movie—you can’t shoot it because if you start filming on the street and walk into buildings, people will start yelling at you. They’ll kick you out. That’s why National Geographic hasn’t even made a film like this. You have to recreate these moments to make them feel real.
So what possessed you to make a movie about this community?
It was impossibly difficult in so many ways. But, you know, I love New York City and I love its confluence of different peoples and ideas and faces. And me and Yoni Brook, who I shot the film with, we’d go all over the city together. I remember one summer I went to every beach in New York City. Like, The Bronx, Staten Island. It’s just different and there’s something special about that. So, it took me to Purim, which is like Jewish Halloween. And we got to go into ultra-Orthodox people’s houses and they gave us drinks and they laughed with us and they connected with us in a way that I found really special because, as you know, even as a Jewish person myself, the ultra-Orthodox are purposefully isolated from us. They purposely don’t wanna engage. If they were engaging, they’d already be talking. I found it just endlessly interesting. And for me, cinema is about learning, so I got to understanding a whole new society through making this movie.
Was there a specific push that made you decide that you wanted to do a fiction film about the Hasidim?
There was one really difficult summer, 2014, where I’d done two medical-related shows—one where I was in end-of-life care in an ER for Frontline and I watched a lot of people pass away, and then I went to India and South Africa to do a piece about tuberculosis and I saw a lot of people suffering and pass away. It’s heavy man. These are real people’s lives, and I’m not really experiencing their lives, but I’m witnessing tremendous hardships and difficulties and there’s only so much of that one person can bear [laughs]. I remember coming home and just feeling like I wanted to expand creatively. Also, in documentaries you can only film what’s in front of you. And it’s just inherently limiting. And I just knew that I was ready to tell a bigger story than you could tell with a documentary.
Did you write the script and think, “I’ll just find some Hasidic actors”? Were you interacting with the community?
I wanted to create a film that was a storyline I couldn’t make up. You know, the community’s different, their rules are different. I love to understand a society by their laws, and so I just knew that I didn’t know what was right about this world. Early on, I would walk around for months taking notes just witnessing people singing. That was enlightening, and I just knew I wanted to put that in the movie. Especially working with non-actors, you want to write parts that they can embrace and also be easy for them. So I was looking for an actor who could star in the movie who could also loosely be based on himself. And when I met Menashe [Lustig, the lead actor in Menashe], I just knew right away that this Charlie Chaplinesque sad kind of a man was a brilliant actor. There were other actors who I met who I also liked, but Menashe was my favorite. And he told me just two facts about himself: one, that he was a widower and, two, that his son doesn’t live with him. He lives a few blocks away. Then I knew that this was a unique enough story that it could hold a whole film together.
So, Menashe has a lot of biographical elements, but there are some fictionalizations. How did you decide which fictional elements to include?
Well, it’s mostly, again, emotionally true, but then everything is fictionalized. You know, there never was a one-week moment [granted to Menashe before his son would be taken], and there never was this dinner where he tried to impress people. It’s how Menashe actually feels. The funny thing is, once I heard those details, then I didn’t really consult him. I just started writing this script with Mussa Syeed, who’s Muslim actually, and Alex Lipschultz, who’s one of the producers as well on the film. And a lot of the things we just made up. Menashe would see them and then say, “This is just like my life, this is just like my life.” But it was almost unintentional, if you’re in your 30s and a widower. I mean, I guess there are certain things that happen in life and in the Hasidic world where there are less options. There’s more chance that everyone would do the same thing.
From my understanding, you’re not fluent in Yiddish. How did you write the script? Did you write it in English and translate it on set?
Originally we thought we were gonna improvise the whole movie have the actors be themselves, but not every actor was capable. Being a great improv actor is very hard and not all actors have that ability, so we ended up writing dialogue for a lot of the actors. And by the end up of it, probably 75% of it was scripted, but we would let the actors obviously change words, because as long as it fit into the essence of what I wanted, it didn’t matter what words they used. It was about the essence and about the emotion.
To me, Yiddish is a very expressive language. It’s full of wonderful characters. Every single time you read about this film, Menashe gets referred to as a “schlimazel” [a consistently unlucky or accident-prone person]. Did the linguistic influence seep into the movie in any way?
Well, I actively tried not to use the Yiddish words that we use in contemporary society because…
...they’re a little too divorced?
It just felt too shticky, you know? But I just wanted to make it way more nuanced than our expectations were. So we did include a bunch of phrases like “if a bear could dance.” I don’t know if you ever heard that before.
I haven’t heard it.
It’s because the film can be very hammy. And it was always, like, how hammy can it be or should be?