Between 1911 and 1950, there were hundreds — the exact number is the matter of some debate — of Yiddish films produced, mostly in Eastern Europe and America. It seems safe to say that over the past few years, there have been more Yiddish-language films than at any time since World War I. I give the credit for this development to the Coen Brothers, whose 2010 film, “A Serious Man,” opened with a 10-minute-long Yiddish horror short that bore little surface relation to the offbeat 1960s retelling of the Book of Job that followed.
Since then, we have seen Eve Annenberg’s quirky “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” (2011), made with exiles from the Williamsburg Satmar community. That same year, the celebrated Polish director Agnieszka Holland — whose latest, the oddball hunting caper “Spoor,” just won the Alfred Bauer Prize at the 67th annual Berlin Film Festival — released “In Darkness,” a harrowing and claustrophobic film about Jews hiding out in Lvov’s sewer system during World War II. Aside from its heart-in-throat suspense and tension, it was noted for its linguistic accuracy; the actors spoke Polish, Hebrew, German, Ukrainian, Russian and, yes, Yiddish. A similar approach guided Laszlo Nemes, director of last year’s “Son of Saul,” the Hungarian Holocaust drama that became the first Yiddish film to win the Oscar for best foreign film. (True, a great many languages mingle in the polyglot screenplay, but Yiddish – the common language of the Jewish inmates at Auschwitz — predominates.)
The latest entry is “Menashe,” Joshua Z. Weinstein’s heartbreaking Yiddish-language feature debut, which premieres later this month at the New Directors/New Films series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Set in Borough Park, Brooklyn, “Menashe” is told entirely — with one or two exceptions — in the language of the alte heym (old country). It is a work of kitchen-sink realism told from an unusual perspective: an insular Hasidic community. The sect isn’t specified in the film, although some of the actors are practicing Skver Hasids — where family issues and interpersonal quarrels are litigated by an all-powerful rabbi (referred to in the film simply as the Ruv).
The film recalls Orthodox director Rama Burshtein’s 2013 “Fill the Void,” another film that offers a glimpse inside a closed-off world and for which Hadas Yaron won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival. But unlike that Hebrew-language feature, “Menashe” did not star fallen-away Hasidim.
In fact, Weinstein’s screenplay (co-written with Musa Syeed and Alex Lipschultz) is based on the life of the film’s 38-year-old star, Menashe Lustig, who is from New Square, New York (a town 27 miles north of the George Washington Bridge.) After Lustig’s wife died, community leaders decided that Lustig’s son should be taken away from him. The rationale was – and still is — that Lustig is unable to care for the child on his own. To this day, Lustig’s son lives with another family.
The Menashe we get to know on screen is a lovable schlimazel who will go to any length to get custody of his 10-year-old son, Rieven. The Ruv allows Menashe to keep his son with him for two weeks, but the hapless hero keeps messing things up at his job at a kosher grocery store, his wife’s memorial service, and even at home alone with his son. In one scene, a panicked Rieven calls his well-do-to uncle to fetch him after Menashe gets plastered.
For its nonobservant director — who doesn’t speak Yiddish and required on-set translation — authenticity was one of the film’s main goals. The extent to which “Menashe” succeeds is practically uncanny. Weinstein, whose background is in documentaries, shoots with an exacting eye for detail; dress, mannerism, food and drink, liturgy and codes of conduct are all represented with a verisimilitude that I have never before seen on film. In particular, I was extremely surprised to hear the shem hameforash, the holiest name for God used in prayer, uttered repeatedly during prayers. Beyond this, an intimately shot — but by no means exploitative — scene in a mikveh is a powerful moment of poetic realism that works in tandem with the emotional apotheosis of the film’s ending.
“Menashe” has a Hasidic producer, Danny Finkelman, described by Weinstein in the press notes as both a “key gatekeeper” to the Hasidic communities depicted in the film and one of the film’s “Ultra-Orthodox Jewish advisors.” In light of the results, it looks like Finkelman was far more helpful than either the rabbis who consulted for DreamWorks’ “The Prince of Egypt” or Oxford historian Robin Fox Lane, an adviser for Oliver Stone’s “Alexander,” who talked the director into giving him a prominent cameo as an extra during a cavalry charge.
Weinstein also faced a particular set of difficulties in making the film, including the widespread resistance of Hasidism to act in a movie. “Smartphones, Internet and radio are banned in most Hasidic homes, as well as modern music and books. So yes, there was a certain amount of hesitance involved,” Weinstein said.
Living in the Hasidic world, many of Weinstein’s actors had never actually seen a movie before, which created “an interesting set of challenges on set.”
“Menashe” is certainly an unconventional film, both in its subject matter and method of execution. In light of these exertions, its success as a dramatic and moving work of cinema appears all the more remarkable. “Menashe” achieves all this, and it does so while ensuring that the lengths of the actors’ beards remain consistent over the course of the film.
“Menashe” will be screened on March 20 as part of the New Directors/New Films series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
A.J. Goldmann is a Berlin-based cultural critic.