Menashe is the kind of person who might be called in Yiddish a schlemiel or schlimazel. Try as he may, he can't get his act together at work, in the kitchen and sometimes, as a father.
Menashe (Menashe Lustig), an ultra-Orthodox Jew, lives in Brooklyn's Borough Park in a Hasidic neighborhood where the movie is set. He's also a widower, and the local rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) -- in accordance with the literal interpretation of the Torah, which prohibits single men from raising children -- has decreed Menashe's son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) can live with him for one week before returning to live with an aunt and uncle until and unless Menashe remarries.
That's the set-up for "Menashe," a sweet and touching film directed and co-written by documentary filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein with a documentarian's eye.
Using a cast of first-time Hasidic actors -- many of whom had never gone to a movie theater -- the film is imbued with real people in revealing, every-day experiences. The naturalness and authenticity makes it hard to believe what's on the screen isn't cinema verite instead of a work of fiction.
The film is unusual both for being spoken in Yiddish and using English subtitles for a film that was made in New York.
Menashe is a lovable loser. He's a checkout clerk at a small grocery store whose tenure there is tenuous. His ethical values -- such as when he questions why the lettuce wasn't washed first before being sold -- aren't appreciated by his dour boss, and he is prone to costly mistakes.
Menashe also is consistently late, broke and his portly frame -- sans the traditional black jacket, white shirt and black hat worn by Hasidic men -- gives off a rumpled, slovenly appearance. He's helpless preparing meals, feeding Rieven cake and Coke for breakfast and burning the kugel when the rabbi and family members come to his small apartment to attend a memorial dinner for his late wife.
Still, Menashe tries his best and desperately wants to regain custody of his son, with whom there are both tender and angry moments as he sees their time together coming to an end.
Menashe's rabbi urges him to get married. "The Talmud says three things bring a man peace: a nice wife, a nice house and nice dishes," he asserts. But Menashe's experience was something different than that, he reveals to fellow Mexican workers.
In one of the film's funniest scenes, Menashe goes on an uncomfortable speed date, where the discussion of marriage quickly rises to the fore and things go from bad to worse. "Your mothers spoil you, then wives take over," the frustrated woman says.
Menashe's brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) is a humorless man who Menashe doesn't want to relinquish Rieven to, but begins to resign himself to that occurring. Still, his faith never wavers. It's the world he knows and accepts, and is reinforced by his submersion at the end of the film into a pool of water known as a mikvah, which repeats a ritual of holiness and purity.
The film raises questions about religion and conformity but never challenges them directly. Instead, it offers a rare window into a religious community that steers clear of modern society, and into a man who, with his foibles and frailties, is all too human.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski in Joshua Z. Weinstein's slice-of-life story set in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn about a widower's attempt to retain custody of his son. 81 minutes. (Rated PG for thematic material.) In Yiddish and using English subtitles.