Hasidic family drama ‘Menashe’ hits universal notes

Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski, in ‘Menashe.’ Photo by: Federica Valabrega, courtesy of A24

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“Menashe” is a heartfelt Yiddish-language drama about a widowed Hasidic father trying to regain custody of his son. Director and co-writer Joshua Weinstein gives us an intriguing glimpse inside New York’s Hasidic community, although it is not always an affectionate one. Still, this is an excellent little film that offers realism and a touching story. 

Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a gentle, chubby, rather-disheveled  man in his mid-30s who has been struggling emotionally and  financially since the death of his wife. His rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) has decreed that the widower’s 10-year-old son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) must live with Menashe’s married and more prosperous brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) until Menashe remarries. 

Menashe is determined to prove that he is capable of taking care of his son. 

Reason exists for the rabbi to be concerned about Menashe’s ability to care for his son. Menashe barely makes enough money to survive with his job at a small grocery. Yet he is often late and doesn’t seem to take his work seriously. His cramped apartment is disorganized. He seems barely able to take care of himself, much less a child. So it is not surprising that the rabbi would place the boy with his late mother’s more successful brother.


Menashe resents Eizik taking over his parental role. The situation is made worse by Eizik’s disapproving attitude towards his sister’s underachieving husband. Although Menashe has allowed the matchmaker to arrange a few meetings for him, he seems in no hurry to remarry and is determined to get his son back regardless.

The plot is loosely based on Lustig’s life and was filmed in the insular Orthodox community where it is set. Weinstein, a documentary filmmaker making a foray into fictional film, is Jewish but not Orthodox and does not speak Yiddish. However, he went within the Hasidim to cast Yiddish speakers who are not actors for his low-key, thoughtful film. 

Weinstein’s experience in documentaries helps “Menashe” achieve a remarkable degree of authenticity and naturalness. His background also probably helped him to get moving and equally natural performances from his cast.

A lot is good, even excellent, in this film, which has a relaxed naturalism and is remarkably free of the exaggeration and stereotyping that often surround portrayals of the Hasidim in film. 

On the other hand, Weinstein does inject some criticism of Hasidic views, which some audience members may find off-putting, less for his opinions on attitudes toward women and marriage than for the rather ham-handed manner in which they are presented. 

Lustig is excellent as Menashe, a likable fellow whose struggles touch our hearts even when we see he is sometimes his own worst enemy. He shows a real gift for conveying his character’s inner thoughts and feelings, whether it is his frustrations and resentment toward his brother-in-law or his intense love of his son. 

In many ways, the plot is structured like any custody battle, with the controlling brother-in-law setting limits on Menashe’s contact with his son. The story is specific to its setting among the Hasidim, but the emotions in this family drama are universal. 

The cinematography contributes much to the dramatic power of this moving, insightful drama. Weinstein opens and closes the film with shots of Menashe on the crowded streets of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community in Borough Park, where the film was shot, often in secret.Most of the film, however, is shot in a closely framed style, creating a feeling of confinement that reflects Menashe’s feelings. Only when he spends time with his son does the camera’s view open up. 

“Menashe” is an involving, realistic, warm family drama that offers a rare peek inside a little seen world. It is a film well worth your time.