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'Menashe': The Child is Father of the Man

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic
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While director Joshua Z. Weinstein's "Menashe" is on first blush a touching look into a child custody battle being waged by Menashe, a Hasidic grocery clerk in Borough Park, Brooklyn, further reflection reveals a much larger, equal opportunity meditation about the human condition.
 
Therefore, just as with the much underrated documentary, "Deli Man" (2014), the slogan "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's real Jewish rye bread" also applies to this Yiddish-spoken film with English subtitles. The sociologically curious of every stripe can find value here.
 
Still, like the response from the grandma who is asked if chicken soup, oft known as Jewish penicillin, will cure a cold, "It wouldn't hurt" in this case to be at least a little Jewish, in spirit if not in fact. But although there may be figures of speech and values espoused recognizable to those more or less familiar with Jewish traditions, the glimpse into this insular culture should prove equally new and compelling to anyone but actual Hasidim.
 
Point of disclosure: No Torah scholar here, I'm the kid who, when after Rabbi Kahn declared me a full-fledged bar mitzvah and then asked if he would be seeing me at postgraduate Talmudic studies on Sunday, answered, "Uh, I don't think so." I was done. My parents were satisfied. Now there would be more time for baseball, though, perhaps in ironic exchange for not immediately being earmarked for the Hell we say we don't have, I didn't become any better a ballplayer than I was a Jew. All the same, I'm proud to be the hypocritical product of my history.
 
Likewise, I think Menashe, a widower well played by Menashe Lustig, while dedicated to the background from which he has sprung, takes umbrage at some of the rules that have of late come to weigh heavily on him. Specifically, and I didn't know this one that serves as the crux of the tale, it is written that a child cannot be raised in a home where there is no woman. Well, it's been almost a year since his wife Leah's untimely death and Menashe's son, Rieven, superbly acted by Ruben Niborski, is being raised at his uncle Eizik's house. Menashe has no plans to wed.
 
Understandably, our title character, thought of as a bit of a schlemiel by his in-laws, his employer and the congregation where he worships, perhaps because of his dreaminess and lack of ambition, misses regular interaction with his son. And the boy, a sweet little kid who wishes dad would wear the traditional long coat and fur-lined hat, nonetheless adores his somewhat discombobulated father. Happily, the doubtlessly devoted link between the two isn't lost on the rabbi.
 
Winningly portrayed by Meyer Schwartz, the Ruv, as the aged, religious leader is respectfully referred to in the community, is the physical embodiment of the biblical civilization he dedicatedly serves. While stern upon initial introduction, it is soon obvious that he wasn't absent the day his rabbi gave the lesson on Solomon the Wise. Although he won't grant Menashe dispensation from the imperative, he sees the judiciousness of allowing him to take Rieven home for the week leading up to his mother's much anticipated, one-year memorial service.
 
Thus the stage is set for the subplot, which plays like something either Sholem Aleichem or Aesop might have written. Menashe, in a grand attempt to prove to the disparaging community at large, but more importantly to his son, that he is a mensch, is hell-bent on organizing and hosting the memorial service. Rooting for him to earn his cred, we peer into the loneliness of the individual ... the conflict of self vs. the group and the never-ending need for approbation from both elements.
 
OK, Menashe is somewhat of a nebbish. Yet he is in varying degree loveable … not because of it, but in spite of it. Representing both the frailty and determination of being, he is a human with his own dreams and aspirations. Hence his fight with those powers that would define him is a defense of the imaginary statues he has erected in his own honor, and representative of a struggle for the legitimacy of his soul. While the group dynamic demands perfection, we suspect it internally cries for the innocence it must scorn.
 
Proffering these subtleties amidst realistic location settings, director Weinstein, working from a script he wrote with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, doesn't pretend to say anything earthshattering or revealing about the cloistered society in which his story takes place. Rather, he politely and respectfully borrows it to serve as a microcosm for his greater egalitarian message, the noble thought of which would probably plant a happily bemused smile on "Menashe's" face.
 
"Menashe," rated PG, is an A24 release directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein and stars Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski and Meyer Schwartz. Running time: 82 minutes

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