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Insider house rules for Menashe

Film that follows the fortunes of Brooklyn widower raises an important question about the concept of multiculturalism

08 December, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Authentic and original – Menashe

MENASHE
Directed by Joshua Z Weinstein
Certificate PG
☆☆☆☆

USING the lyrical and expressive language of Yiddish, this film is a little gem of a tale. It feels authentic and original.

Shot in Borough Park, Brooklyn, where a large Hasidic Jewish community lives, the film follows the fortunes of widower Menashe (Menashe Lustig). He is a kind, accident-prone grocery store assistant. We don’t know how he lost his wife, but we witness him as he tries to negotiate his way through the barren land of early grief, where the daily grind seems futile in the grand scheme of things.

At the centre of all this is his young son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) – and as well as having to cope with his own loss, Rieven is torn between the love he has for his father, and the orthodoxies and rules of the community they are a part of. Tradition means that Menashe is not meant to raise his son on his own, so he is adopted by his uncle – leaving Menashe lonely and adrift. The Rabbi rules Menashe should be allowed to spend another week with his boy, as the family prepare for a memorial meal – and this week could be used to prove that maybe Menashe should be allowed to look after his boy and prove he can handle a single dad’s responsibilities.

Director Joshua Weinstein’s achievement is not just writing and directing a very good drama, he also had to find a way into a community that has rules about interaction with others.

In the film’s production notes he says: “Many of the actors took a huge risk being involved, as most religious leaders in the community are firmly against outside media.”

And it was a learning experience for him, as it is for the viewer. He added: “The community is usually depicted according to the views of outsiders and frequently appears cold and generally without joy. Yet the Hasidic culture that I have experienced is one that is funny, beautiful, and deeply spiritual. While I was researching the film I would walk the streets of Borough Park and have frank conversations with the people I encountered, many of whom were wonderful and exceedingly curious about the outside world.”

It also raises an important question about the concept of multiculturalism. While it is, of course, great to be able celebrate the richness of diversity and fan our curiosity, this film is also about monoculturalism. What happens to Menashe and his family is universal to all of us. His emotions, situation, actions and reactions could happen to anyone, anywhere. That is part of this film’s unsaid triumph.

Another element that makes it enjoyable is to be immersed in a language that has wide cultural roots. Yiddish is still spoken in London – but mostly in snatched expressions that have survived and made their way into mainstream English. The phrases adopted enrich our conversations and are often used without their origins being apparent. It is a rather wonderful experience to hear a script using the language in full.

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