In Borough Park, Brooklyn––away from the hipster music venues, artisan restaurants and trendy fashion spots that people have come to associate with the gentrified borough––lives Menashe, the titular protagonist of Joshua Z. Weinstein’s directorial debut. He is a single parent raising his only child, which in the eyes of his Orthodox Judaism means he cannot have custody––single parent households are forbidden, so he must find a wife and stepmother for his son. Should he fail to marry, Menashe’s son would be in custody of his disapproving brother-in-law.
Performed entirely in Yiddish, Menashe is a slice of life dramedy about a man who’s adhered to his religion his entire life, and in the face of tragedy finds himself at a crossroads.
Does he make the most of his single life with his son, or does he marry so they can continue to have a household together? His arranged marriage was loveless from the beginning, but without another one, he’ll lose the only family he has left. He’s also well-aware that he’s not the most socially polished, and that were he to remarry, it would most likely be no better than the previous one.
Weinstein, along with screenwriters Musa Syeed and Alex Lipschultz, gives Menashe the benefit of the doubt in portraying him honestly. They don’t condone his actions, nor are they blind to his faults. The screenplay offers a bird’s eye perspective without tutoring the unfamiliar audience on the religion’s customs. We know, for instance, that Menashe doesn’t fully dress as an Orthodox man is supposed to (he doesn’t wear the mandatory Kippah at all times, for one), nor, as far as I can tell, is he expected to drink malt liquor, let alone on the job. He loves his son dearly, but can’t bring himself to pay his rent on time, or resist the urge to argue with his boss.
Nevertheless, he is a person, one who’s just as flawed as the rest of us. The sentiment might feel trite, but in this case, it bridges the gap between religion and observer. A movie that emphasizes on the stricter aspects of religion––and less Menashe’s daily life––might not find such a broad audience. By showing Menashe doing relatively mundane activities (working, eating at the table, going to the park), one sees Menashe as a person vis a vis his religion and focuses on the customs to which he is strictly confined. Moreover, the actor, Menashe Lustig, had also lost his wife and upon moving to Brooklyn from the U.K., was told by a rabbi that he is unfit for parenting because he is single. Weinstein utilizes his documentary background to give a classic portrayal of art reflecting life, one that imbues the movie with an afterthought long after it ends.
In the vein of Ernest Borgnine in Marty, Lustig portrays Menashe––or himself, if you will––as a ne’er do well type who’s a comic joy, but perhaps less funny if you were to know him in person. He’s dearly loved by his son, who’s wise beyond his years and can see the marriage as the mandatory ritual it was, if not at all by his brother-in-law, who still resents Menashe after the passing of his sister. After the film ends, it’s not sure where Menashe will go from there. Nevertheless, you feel as though you were introduced to a man and culture in a way you wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise.