Interview: Joshua Z. Weinstein on Making the Hasidic Drama Menashe

Weinstein discusses filming one of New York’s most cloistered communities.

Interview: Joshua Z. Weinstein on Making the Hasidic Drama Menashe

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?

But it does feel very authentic. I get the sense that, I mean I’m not Hasidic so maybe I’m totally off-base on this, it sounds like something that could happen to somebody in the community.

Every detail, every line, every image, was fact-checked by religious and non-religious experts, because a film like this lives or dies by its authenticity. And if the criticism was that it felt emotionally untrue, that it doesn’t feel like something someone would actually do, I knew it was gonna fail.

Do you think you could have made this film with non-Hasidic actors?

No way! I wouldn’t even have tried to do it because it’s not worth it. Because the whole point was, I mean, the faces, the beards, the movements, the vocal tics. These are things that were unique. It wasn’t about creating chaos; it was about reining the chaos in some days. And other days we had a great chaos. We just had to make it seem messy and lived in. But then a lot of times we were just holding it together with gaff tape!

So how did you convince these non-professional actors to star in a movie about their community?

Many didn’t want to do it. Some actors left, and others quit a few days before we started. The brother-in-law was originally a father-in-law. The father-in-law quit and then we found a brother-in-law, and then he quit. The brother-in-law actor we ended up with was like the third person we cast for that role.


He played a good bad guy.

He was great. He’s so stern in real life, Yoel Falkowitz [the actor who plays Menashe’s brother-in-law] works as a paralegal. So he’s very didactic. And a lot of the characters were informed by who they were. I would just do these mass castings and do these improv games and see what these actors could do and who they could be and how they felt on the lens. So it’s just kind of taking what you have and finding the strengths in it.

Stories about close-knit religious communities are often about one individual trying to find their way out. Menashe isn’t like that all.

Yeah. Well, I found that almost every film about the Hasidic world and about the religious world is, like you said, about people leaving. And I was just more interested in writing a character who never thinks about leaving and how that affects them and what decisions they make. So it was just intellectually a more interesting film for me if he never thought about that.

Can you talk about why you chose to put so much emphasis on religious spaces and ceremonies? You could have put the focus entirely on Menashe and his son or you could have put the focus elsewhere.

Well, it’s fascinating for me. I just had never seen Lag BaOmer, that big bonfire celebration, in a film before. You know, these are big community celebrations. They bring everybody together and there’s a mystical quality to it. And Hasidism is really a mystical religion, and it’s all about those specific acts people take part in. It populates their entire days. Their days are just lists of religious moments they have to achieve. First thing in the morning to the last thing at night there’s something you have to do. And I just love that regiment. It has to affect you as a person.

What was it like filming that Lag BaOmer fire? I can’t imagine being able to gather together that many Hasidic actors.

A scene like that we actually shot in a real Lag BaOmer celebration and we’d have big place cards that said, “By Being Here You Agree To Be In The Movie.” So everyone knew that. Some people moved, most people didn’t care, but it was incredible! I mean, actually my shirt got burned that night. I have holes in my shirt from being so close to the fire. But the whole film was made actually just to include that one scene. I just wanted to show that. I’ve never seen thousands of other people dancing around a flame. It does feel transcendent. It feels like it could have happened thousands of years ago, but yet it’s happening right now down the street. I was shock and awed by it.

You seem like a secular Jew or a reform Jew to say the least.


I would say I’m a non-Orthodox Jew. I’m a believer in Judaism. I practice it.

But, as you’d mentioned, the Orthodox community tends to segregate itself from less religious groups. Was it every odd being in that sort of environment? Was there ever any tension between you guys because of that?

People, Menashe, Yoel, all the main actors, they were just ecstatic to be part of the movie. And they were part of my barriers to the outside world. They helped fend off the naysayers. Which there were a few, but they existed. Like I said before, many actors dropped out, we’d lose locations, and some people would get upset with us in the street. But again, the majority of Hasids don’t want to be involved in a film like that. And I understand why. Nothing good can really come of their lives from being involved with the film.

You mentioned that some of the actors had just seen the movie. What sort of reception has it been getting inside the Hasidic community?

People are really excited by it, but they think they’re just gonna bootleg it. They think this is gonna be like the biggest bootlegged film that’s ever hit Borough Park. It’s funny, on [the movie’s] Yiddish Wikipedia, Menashe wrote: “This film was not made for religious people.” Just so they know that. Again, most people wouldn’t be offended by this film, but there are women in it and religious men aren’t supposed to look at women acting. So there’s a bunch of things in this film that to us seem unimportant, but in that world actually are considered major problems.

Could you talk a little more about the various choices you made in depicting the relation between men and women?

That was a big debate. Do we represent women in the way that secular people and liberal people want to see women or do we represent women in the way that Menashe’s character would actually interact with women? And we ended up going the way that Menashe interacted with women. As a widower, he’d only interact with women who were family members, working with him in the store, the dates he’s gone on, and that’s about it. Women would not be part of his everyday life. And I know it’s upsetting that this is the way it is. But at the same time, it would be dishonest of us as filmmakers to insert more women in this story just because it would make us feel better.

Menashe seems to love the camera, and you’ve found at least a couple people who don’t mind being in a movie, do you think there’s gonna be any sort of Yiddish film community popping up around this?

Definitely! That’s what Menashe wants and Danny Finkleman, a producer on the movie, is striving for. I think people are ready for it. And Menashe is a brilliantly talented actor and he could have any role he wants. He wants to stay in the community, so I think he’s limited to types of roles.


Peter Goldberg

Peter Goldberg is a New York City-based film critic and copywriter whose criticism has appeared in The Baffler, Film Comment, and The Brooklyn Rail.

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