Over beers, a Hasidic widower challenges our assumptions
This essay is part of the Forward’s list of 125 greatest Jewish movie scenes. You can find the whole list and accompanying essays here.
Cast with non-professional actors and inspired by the true life story of its title character, Joshua Z. Weinstein’s “Menashe” recounts the deeply unhappy, and at times comic, experiences of a widower (Menashe Lustig) living in a tightknit and controlling Hasidic Brooklyn enclave. A man-child, Menashe wants to raise his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), alone, but the religious world in which he is rooted does not allow a single man to have sole custody of his child.
And so, Rieven lives with Menashe’s brother-in-law (and his wife), who holds Menashe in open contempt. His assessment is not totally wrong. Clumsy, unkempt, in debt and all-around incompetent Menashe may not be the best dad. His work ethic is lacking. He makes his living at a grocery as a cashier and occasional delivery man. Called upon to make a delivery of fish, he fails to close the van’s back door and as he swerves around a corner, unsealed boxes of fish, worth thousands of dollars, fly onto the street, now totally unsalvageable.
“Menashe” is a stunningly authentic film in look and feel. Yiddish is spoken throughout. Even more striking, however, are our protagonist’s contradictions and complexities that defy Hasidic stereotypes. Menashe is tormented by his culture’s customs and religious dictates, yet it never occurs to him to grab his son and jump ship. He desperately wants his community’s stamp of approval, and in a powerful scene with his Latino co-workers, he is able to express why.
Enjoying a few beers together in the stockroom, Menashe and his work buddies establish an unexpected but fully credible camaraderie.These men, all in their 30s and 40s, at once beleaguered and fun-loving, offer him friendship without judgment and he is as curious about them as they are about him.
His co-workers are puzzled by Menashe’s need to remarry. They think he should be enjoying a fine old time as a bachelor. They’re married and hate the restrictions. Perhaps fueled by the inhibition-freeing effects of alcohol, Menashe opens up, explaining why he has to remarry. He talks about the misery of his previous marriage, one arranged by his own father and awash in contention from the outset. There was no compatibility. He and his late wife argued about virtually everything.
Childbearing headed the list. Hasidim are expected to produce large families. As it turned out she had great difficulty getting pregnant with their first child and was simply unable to conceive a second time. That was a red flag of failure. Menashe says they then went the IV fertilization route. Finally it worked until she developed a blood clot in her leg that ultimately killed her and the unborn child. Menashe did not take care of her and admits he was relieved when she passed.
This is the first and only time the viewer gets a peek into the quality of Menashe’s past life and realizes the private pain and lingering guilt he continues to carry. We also understand why the prospect of remarrying is tormenting to him.
As we watch the scene, we realize that Menashe is not quite as buffoonish as we previously believed. In that most unlikely of cross-cultural exchanges, he has shown himself to be a three-dimensional, comprehending human being. Equally revealing, he has the capacity to be fully comfortable with members of another culture, to see and appreciate their humanity; and vice versa.
The scene hints at common bonds and universality and makes a parochial character a little less parochial and perhaps even more understandable to audiences from all backgrounds.