Menashe

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Menashe Lustig plays Menashe, a widower trying to regain custody of his son

Deep in the heart of New York’s ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community, we follow Menashe — a bumbling, gentle giant of a man who, after the death of his wife, is struggling to keep custody of his 11 year old son Rieven.

Strict Hasidic rules mean that Menashe must quickly find another wife to be able to have Rieven live with him again. The local rabbi has made it clear: “Three things bring a man peace — a nice wife, a nice home and nice dishes.” And this is more than a piece of advice; it’s an instruction. Until Menashe finds a wife, Rieven must live with the family of his late wife’s brother Eizik, a well-off property developer who looks on the unambitious, dishevelled Menashe with some contempt.

Menashe works long hours in a grocery store and his clumsy and casual approach to his job infuriates both his boss and the customers. Gefilte fish go flying out of his delivery van when he fails to secure the back doors. His unapologetic explanation to his boss means he gets put on night shifts and it will be even harder to look after his son.

Even so he is in no rush to remarry and there are some amusingly awkward scenes with would-be wives where he doesn’t hide his lack of enthusiasm for the matchmaking.

Instead he seizes on the chance to impress the doubters that he can be a suitable parent when the rabbi grants him a week alone with Rieven, leading up to the memorial commemorating a year since his wife’s death, which Menashe stubbornly insists on holding in his cramped, spartan flat.

We follow Menashe and Rieven round the streets of Brooklyn as they face one mishap after another. It is a wonderful insight into this community bound by religious regulations — young and old dress in a time-honoured way, harking back to how Polish nobility once dressed, and a large part of the day seems to have some religious significance and a cause to stop and pray.

Menashe is deeply committed to the strict Hasidic culture but he is also feeling the strain. He is partial to relaxing with his fellow Latino workers at the shop and downing a number of beers. He also avoids wearing the customary black hat and long coat, to the annoyance of his relatives. But he always turns to the kindly rabbi to help him further the claim to his son.

What makes the film so unique and interesting is that it opens up a world that is largely unknown to outsiders. It is filmed in the very guarded Hasidic community in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighbourhood and lifts the veil on a community that largely chooses to remain private. Almost entirely shot in Yiddish (with subtitles) and starring mostly non-actors, the film has a gentle and sympathetic take on Menashe’s predicament.

It sometimes has the air of a documentary, probably because Menashe Lustig, who plays the lead, admits that he is partly portraying himself and his own life story in the film. It is both touching and enjoyable to watch.