Director and co-screenwriter Joshua Z. Weinstein’s quietly insightful drama Menashe, set within the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, is a rarity — an American movie with dialogue in Yiddish, a language spoken by Eastern and Central European Jews before the Holocaust decimated their numbers. To hear it spoken as part of someone’s everyday contemporary life is unusual.
The title character Menashe (played by Menashe Lustig) is a hulking man-child with a kind heart, a widower fighting to retain custody of his young son in a culture that strictly adheres to the notion that children need both a mother and a father.
The problem for Menashe is that he is not ideal marriage material. He works in a neighborhood market where he mixes with others outside the faith. He questions the rules of the orthodoxy, pushing for the opportunity to raise his son on his own despite the fact that he’s a mess, barely contained by religious strictures or cultural decorum.
He can’t wake up on time for work. He allows his son to skip school and hang out with him at his job. And with his meager earnings, he’s constantly behind on bills, particularly unable to prepare for the upcoming anniversary meal marking his wife’s passing.
It is one thing to not fit into mainstream society. Movies and serials capturing the rough and uneasy forcing of round pegs into square slots abound and will likely continue to do so as long as we’re able to share such stories.
Menashe serves as an outlier of sorts, due to the fact that it focuses on a man tilting against quite possibly the ultimate windmill. Menashe stands almost diametrically opposed to the rigid social order of his community, yet there is a core morality to which the two sides are in perfect sync. This man wants nothing more than to care for his son.
Menashe is the most human and humane of dramas. And it sometimes works as genuine comedy, too. He is an Everyman who refuses to lose himself in either the rules of faith or the expectations that go with what it means to be a good father. (Now playing at the Mariemont Theatre.) (PG) Grade: B+