The last Yiddish-language movie I remember watching was the Polish drama The Dybbuk (1937) by Michał Waszyński, so when I found out Art House was bringing Menashe (2017) to Billings, I could not help but get excited.
Set in the insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, Menashe (Menashe Lustig), a widower, fights for custody over his son in a culture that believes children need both a mother and a father. Until Menashe marries again, the local rabbi declares him unfit to raise his son, who lives with Menashe’s former brother-in-law’s family. Shot almost entirely in Yiddish, a colorful Jewish language which was nearly wiped out by Holocaust, the movie explores the nature of parenthood and the clash between tradition and the love of a father for his son.
The movie has just the right amount of drama, which provides an intimate look at Menashe’s hardships, but it is also filled with the right amount of comedy; the main character has a reputation for being an irresponsible schmuck. He works at a neighborhood market where he often forgets to sweep the floor, he questions the rules of the rabbi, he associates with people from outside the Jewish community, and his low salary prevents him from paying the bills on time. Pressed from both sides of the society he lives in, the Hasidic and the secular one, Menashe is a man of faith with very few hopes.
Inspired by the lead actor’s real life, Menashe‘s authenticity is in the representation of feelings without the exacerbated use of words. He is driven by self-doubt and the struggle for his son, which fits with his contemplative personality. Nothing seems to be going right for Menashe. Since that is the reality for many people, the viewer easily connects with the main character, feeling Menashe’s overwhelming sadness as he tries to prove himself to a world that seems to see him as unfit.
Director: Joshua Weinstein
Screenplay: Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed, Joshua Z. Weinstein
Running Time: 1h 22m