Joshua Z. Weinstein’s feature-length directorial debut is built around the magnetic character of Menashe (Menashe Lustig), a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who’s trying to hold onto his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski). Menashe, though, isn’t just trying to keep the boy out of the hands of his late wife’s brother, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus); he’s also trying to assert a level of individuality away from the rest of his Orthodox community. He’s been a widower for about a year and, as we glean from the reluctance he displays on dates arranged by matchmakers, isn’t in a rush to get married again anytime soon.
Menashe is the story of a man grappling with the possibility that the Hasidic tradition that requires his son to be raised in a household with both a mother and a father may not square with the life he wishes to live. His rebellion is evident in his refusal to wear the hat and jacket required by his faith, but it’s most ardently felt in his desperate desire to not raise Rieven in an environment as loveless as the arranged marriage that led to the boy’s birth.
Weinstein, though, is too humane to simply turn Menashe into a martyr for the constricting nature of Jewish orthodoxy, recognizing that the man is also to blame for his own troubles. Across the duration of the film, he gets into arguments with his boss at the local supermarket at which he slaves away, pleads with his landlord to give him more time to pay rent, and generally acts in a hapless manner that implies he can barely take care of himself, and despite what his prideful claims may suggest to the contrary. “Hasidic men,” one woman with whom Menashe goes out on a date says in frustration after he admits his reluctance to remarry. “First your mothers spoil you, then your wives.” The film makes evident that the man’s recent struggles are his own flailing attempts to live by himself for the first time in his life—one reason why he feels some guilt over his wife’s death, even if he didn’t truly love her.
In essence, Menashe is a man-child, which explains why he so easily relates to his son. At the same time, Rieven is also wise beyond his years, and tellingly so: He’s able to accept his father’s flaws more easily than anyone else in their community, even after the boy acknowledges that everyone else is right about how his dead mother was so shabbily treated by Menashe. Weinstein tenderly sketches this father-son relationship through offhand scenes in which we see Menashe teaching Rieven the Torah in a playful manner in a library, and Rieven enjoying ice cream that his father has bought him. In these privileged moments, their loving rapport helps to establish the one thing that endears viewers to Menashe, for all his clumsiness: his attempts to do right by his son.
Credited as co-director of photography on the film alongside Yoni Brook, Weinstein consistently conveys a feeling of dropping in on an unfamiliar environment and observing people’s behavior with a preponderance of handheld camerawork and fly-on-the-wall stationary shots. But Menashe’s screenplay, which Weinstein co-wrote with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, also adds to this naturalistic flavor by taking a subculture rarely seen on screen almost completely at face value, refusing to needlessly elaborate upon the customs of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community or indulge in heavy-handed theological inquiries. As a result, Weinstein forces us to find common humanity in his characters, and the sense that the film inspires of discovering something universal in a culturally specific environment makes the story’s tradition-versus-modernity themes stick in the mind more effectively.
Also striking throughout are the seemingly caught-on-the-wing moments that subtly enrichen the film’s characterizations. A crack that Menashe makes to a beggar, about the man needing to avoid marriage because “it’s better for your health,” is all that’s required here to convey Menashe’s ambivalence toward an institution that his fellow Hasids hold dear. In another scene, Eizik decries Gentiles for their more open attitude toward marriage and family, decrying their “broken homes” and, by extension, “broken society.” That line is also all that’s need to illuminate the Hasidic community’s rigid insularity.
In the end, that Menashe still desires to stay in this community for the sake of family attests to Weinstein’s understanding of the multitudes that his protagonist contains. More than offering a rare peek into a relatively unexplored way of life, Menashe presents a fascinatingly complex character whose own struggles—to start over, to improve himself, to do right by others—gradually come to resemble our own, regardless of religious faith, and how often they throw us in different directions at the same time.