There are very few moments of joy in director Joshua Weinstein’s ninety-two minute film “Menashe”. And, I imagine there were even fewer joyous moments in the the arranged Hasidic marriage of Menashe ( Menashe Lustig ) and his wife, Leah. The backstory is given late in the film. Married at twenty-two, Menashe is somewhat of a “schlemiel”, an awkward and unlucky person for whom things never turn out right. Their one son, Rieven ( Ruben Niborski ) was not enough for Leah, who died of a blood clot as the result of an invitro procedure. The first rule of the Torah given to Adam was the directive: “Be fruitful and multiply.” The drugs used in aiding fertilization are therefore allowed.
A year later, we see that Menashe will lose his son if he does not see a matchmaker and remarry. Rieven will not be allowed to attend his school unless he resides in a two- parent home. He is now living with his mother’s brother and his family. All this we learn slowly as we watch Menashe disheveled and guilt-ridden try to be loving and joyful for his son.
The setting is in the ultra- orthodox Borough Park, NY. We get to hear Yiddish spoken and sects within sects of rabbI-ruled enclaves decide how Menashe should proceed. The slice-of-life format follows our widower throughout his day. We see him in his ritual morning ablutions; we see him rushing his son to school; and we see him offering the ten-year-old Rieven a hastily thrown together breakfast of pop and cake. Clearly, Menashe does not have his household together.
While the Talmud is said to address three rules: nice wife, nice house, nice dishes; there is sparse comedy in this melancholy film. Like a sad clown, Menashe is disrespected by his brother-in-law, and his son is observant of this. One of the most emotional scenes is when Rieven is slapped across the face for repeating what he has heard: that his father has not taken proper care of his ill mother.
“Stop banging on the teapot” , Menashe meekly says to his son’s uncle and his biggest critic. Now Rieven’s custodian, his uncle does not let up. Menashe responds by purchasing a pet chick and by telling his son that, “Babies are sweet. They don’t have to be big shots.” Religious community status presses on, and his Hispanic clerk mates offer alcohol and commaradery. In the midst of this bonding, the chick dies. I found this all sadder than humorous.
Next, Menashe attempts to hold Leah’s memorial dinner. His noodle kugel burns. The fire alarm goes off. In a ritual-like baptism, Menashe conforms. The ending shot shows him in his sect’s traditional hat and coat walking down the street. Called inconsiderate and excuse-prone by the rabbi, Menashe shows that men can suffer in the aftermath of an arranged marriage, too.
This film is not for everyone. Non-Jewish viewers will ask as does Menashe, ” Must the rabbi meddle in everything?” Like a very different Israeli film, ” Gett: The Trial of Viviana Amsalem” (reviewed March 31st, 2015 ), the issue of individual freedom and external religious control brings up philosophical and existential issues much deeper than rules in respecting cemeteries, which are, by the way : no eating, no drinking, and no doing business! This is a film that needs to be mulled over for a few days. Quiet father/son moments like when Menashe wipes dog poop from his son’s sole will resonate. We hope Menashe does not co-opt his joy in trying to bring joy to his son.