'Menashe' at Berlinale: Behind the Veil of New York’s Hasidic Community

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<p>Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski in ‘Menashe’</p>

Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski in ‘Menashe’

Photo © Federica Valabrega

Menashe is part of a community where not being strict about the rules gets your kids thrown out of school, being unmarried is frowned upon and the religious leader decides the fate of the people. Menashe is a Hasidic Jew living in New York, a man who wants to retain custody of his young son at all costs, despite being single, not particularly well-employed and an outcast. Now there is what I call a story about courage under fire! Just the kind of film that always hits home with me.

Joshua Z Weinstein’s Menashe is a work of art that enjoyed its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, before moving on to Berlinale, where I finally got to watch it. It’s been compared to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, to the Dardenne brothers, but really Menashe is that rare work of art that blends a fictional story with the reality of its setting and actors and knows no equals. BTW, Menashe has secured US distribution through A24, so you’ll soon get to watch this gem too.

The film manages a unique, exquisite slice-of-life view into a community I’ve often observed from the outside — in Borough Park and passing through Williamsburg in the days before the gentrification kids invaded the neighborhood. It was a magical land, I remember, a place where time seemed to have stopped, where men still behaved like men — and wore the hats to prove it — and women knew their place. As a teenager feeling a lot like an outsider in real life, trying to figure out my own placement in society, the precision of those roles seemed perfect to me.

In Berlin, a festival that feels like the equivalent of an adult, intellectual candy store for a woman who loves cinema as much as I do, I got to meet filmmaker Joshua Z Weinstein — and no there is no period after the Z, it’s just “Z” — and Menashe Lustig, his charismatic inspiration-slash-star for Menashe. It was a meeting I shall never forget.

Menashe, I read that the first time you were in a movie theater was when you attended your premiere at Sundance. What did that feel like?

Menashe Lustig: It was incredible because it was the first time I heard feedback from the people — they laughed, and they cried and I heard their gasps. It wasn’t fake, it’s true. I didn’t believe that people could connect with it. It’s like wi-fi service, people connected to it and that’s it.

Joshua Z Weinstein: The first time I showed him the movie, he still didn’t get it. He was like, what’s the point? He watched the whole movie, and he didn’t get it.

Because you thought people wouldn’t get it?

Joshua Z Weinstein: No, he thought it was sad, there wasn’t an ending.

Menashe Lustig: It’s all my garbage, my anxiety, my faults. I didn’t get it in the beginning. In the past, I made slapstick stuff, funny stuff, or I copied people, and he got me in a way that I could be serious. I was so happy that someone got me, it’s mixed in the movie, there are jokes but they are natural. It comes together, like real life.

Joshua Z Weinstein: He’s a better Roberto Benigni.

The film clearly deals with personal courage, so what was Menashe’s own courage in making this film?

Joshua Z Weinstein: You have to understand that Menashe is from a small village outside of NYC, of 7,000 people, there is one road in and one road out. Everyone there, very few people have cellphones very few people have computers, no TVs no radios, and the law of the Rabbi is the law of land there. And it’s all about observing Judaism, so Menashe took a huge risk being in this movie because it’s against the rules to be here and to participate in this.

<p>Joshua Z Weinstein </p>

Joshua Z Weinstein

You had this idea and then you met Menashe and named your film after him. How much of him is in there, how did the writing change once you met him?

Joshua Z Weinstein: I wanted to make a film that was completely unique in the story, that couldn’t be written about another community but could only be written about this community. I wanted the whole plot to be something that I did not know, I couldn’t imagine. So when I met Menashe and he told me that his wife had passed away and he lost custody of his son, I knew that emotionally that was something that spoke to a universal truth. But at the same time, the specificity of that would be unique. So all the narrative plot lines we made up in the movie but that emotional truth was what I was trying to convey to viewers. I did a few castings within the community but immediately I saw the sad clown eyes that had so much soul and so much pain in them, behind his humor is a lot of grief and anxiety and it was just palpable to me and it was the character I wanted to create and explore.

The pain of the Jewish diaspora, the Jewish experience at large, are personified in this orthodox man.

Joshua Z Weinstein: Being in Germany it’s hard not to imagine this. There were 13 million Yiddish speakers before WWII and after the war we only have a million tops in the world. And before WWII there were Yiddish movies, Yiddish plays, Yiddish books, philosophy, that was the language for Jewish culture. But just the whole idea that we’re only watching this movie because it’s exotic. And it’s really sad that is happening.

To me, more than exotic, Menashe is like an ambassador for his culture. And a very outspoken one.

Joshua Z Weinstein: His own community doesn’t want him to be the ambassador.

Of course, because you are outspoken and different!

Menashe Lustig: But it doesn’t change the fact that I am from New Square and I am the guy who does this.

Joshua Z Weinstein: His society, they are terrified of life changing and of modernity.

Menashe Lustig: They don’t want me to be the publicist of them.

Joshua Z Weinstein: There was a rally, over forty thousand people, they sold out a baseball stadium in NYC, a protest anti-internet. That’s how anti-change they are. The more they keep quiet, the more insulated they are, they think that is the answer.

Now you’ve touched on the Trump election and the fact that people are becoming terrified of change. So this film becomes cathartic because it shows, through a different community, what that fear does. How do you feel when you hear that?

Joshua Z Weinstein: I work in documentary so I was at the Trump and Hillary rallies before the election, and I remember talking to Trump voters and hearing how some of them, or many of them were Bernie supporters, they were Democrats and for them, life is only changing for the worse. Where they live in this country, there are no jobs, there is no opportunity, so the system is not working for them. So it doesn’t matter how good the system is, the system has failed them. They are looking for an alternative system which is what Trump was to them.

What was the most challenging aspect of making this film for you?

Menashe Lustig: I hate to travel, on the airplane. For me, it’s a big sacrifice and they told me early on, “you’ll have to go to a lot of places.” But they brought to Berlin in a really nice way, it could be impossible that I be in Berlin, according to my emotions and according to my fears. In my community, I went to the Rabbi and said, “I go to Berlin” and he said “no problem.” Then I felt good about coming. But I was not sleeping for two nights before traveling.

Joshua Z Weinstein: People really don’t understand what a film is in his community and it just sounds scary. And when it sounds scary, they threaten him and put pressure on him. So it’s up to Menashe to work within those boundaries. Like his character in the film, here is someone who is making sacrifices to stay in the community. And as a thesis theme, that interested me. Religious films are always about people leaving, always about people saying it’s awful. In the secular world we always think running is easier, and I just loved as a thesis statement to explore why do people stay. For me that was a much more investing story to write and to explore and to make.

Photos courtesy of Berlinale, used with permission.

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