The Powerful New Indie That Goes Inside New York’s Hasidic Community

Making an independent film on-location in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, and almost completely in Yiddish, is not the most obvious way to lure people into a theater. When director Joshua Z. Weinstein embarked on his quest to produce Menashe in this very way, his plan was greeted with considerable skepticism, including from his closest ally. “Even my mom told me it was a bad idea to make this movie,” he laughs. “Folks didn’t really believe that an all-Yiddish film with non-actors was going to be a good way to spend a Saturday night. They just couldn’t comprehend it.

On the eve of its July 28 release (following an enthusiastically received premiere at January’s Sundance Film Festival), it’s clear that Weinstein’s gamble has paid off. Menashe is one of the year’s most uniquely engaging films, an ethnographic deep-dive into a closed-off community that’s also a nuanced character study. That person is Menashe, a Borough Park widower who finds himself fighting to regain custody of his adolescent son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), who’s now living with his uncle Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) because Hasidic norms stipulate that a single man is unfit to raise a child by himself. It’s a heartfelt tale about a father’s love for his child (and vice versa), the sacrifices required by parenthood, and the difficulty of forging an individualistic path in a conformist environment—and one that’s based, in part, on the life of its star, Menashe Lustig.

As Weinstein says, “Aside from those two details [that Lustig is a widower, and was trying to regain guardianship of his kid] everything else is fictionalized. Because it wouldn’t be interesting, honestly, otherwise. People’s lives don’t make simple narratives. They don’t fit well in that box.” Nonetheless, he knew from the outset that Lustig’s plight was both specific enough to Hasidic life, and yet universal enough to resonate outside those confines, to serve as the basis for a drama. Moreover, he…

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