Ambitious filmmaker Joshua Z Weinstein certainly didn’t make things easy on himself for his first narrative feature, the religiously tinged family drama Menashe (opening in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal this weekend). While its themes and core plot are immediately recognizable to anyone outside the Jewish faith, Menashe comes firmly rooted in tenets and beliefs found in Orthodox Judaism. It’s also the first film in decades to feature dialogue exclusively in Yiddish, a language that hasn’t appeared often on screen since the establishment of Israel and the creation of Hebrew, and one that Weinstein couldn’t even speak at first.
It was quite the learning curve for Weinstein, who has an extensive documentary background, but never previously attempted a fictional feature. Despite growing up Jewish in the New York suburbs, Weinstein didn’t directly grow up in the ultra orthodox culture that fascinated him enough to make a film set there. Furthermore, he wants Menashe to feel so authentic to the Jewish New Yorker experience that he sought to cast predominantly non-actors for the film, many of whom were so devout that they had never stepped inside a movie theatre before. To say that it was tough for Weinstein to secure funding and talent to make such an intimate and unique drama would be an understatement.
Menashe Lustig stars in Weinstein’s film as the titular character, a hard working, but conflicted grocery store cashier eking out a living in the heavily Hassidic Borough Park neighbourhood. Menashe has been struggling with the death of his wife while trying to cast for his young son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), the best he can. Weinstein’s story joins Menashe at a difficult time, as orthodox tradition states that a man cannot raise a child on his own without a wife, something compounded by his former brother-in-law’s adamant belief that Rieven would be better off away from his sometimes aloof father. Menashe is the story of what might end up being the final week this father has custody of his son, and all the pain, rage, and desperation that accompanies such deeply cutting feelings.
We caught up with Weinstein earlier this summer over coffee at The Gladstone Hotel in Toronto while he was in town to celebrate the film’s closing of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and talked about getting a feel for Yiddish, making a film within the Ultra Orthodox community, casting non-actors, and his mother’s amazement that the film got made in the first place.
You cast people for the film who already knew Yiddish, so what was your exposure to the language before setting out to make Menashe? Was it something that was a part of your daily life or something a bit less familiar?
Joshua Z Weinstein: My grandparents spoke Yiddish. Are you Jewish or writing this for a Jewish publication? I guess my answer depends on how Jewish you want me to go. (laughs) I don’t want to overload you on too much Jewish stuff if you don’t want. (laughs) I mean, I could go into the whole discussion about the cultural relevance of Yiddish versus Hebrew, which is a pretty big debate, but I’m not sure if that would bore you or not. (laughs)
We could talk about that. Honestly, as a non-Jewish person the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish is fascinating to me.
Joshua Z Weinstein: Awesome! Hopefully everyone else is interested, too. (laughs) My grandparents generation spoke Yiddish, and that was pre-World War II. Yiddish, at the time, was the Jewish language by far. There were books, plays, movies, lots of newspapers, and songs all written in Yiddish because it was the Jewish language. Then – post World War II with the creation of Israel and the horror left behind after the war and the holocaust – people almost gave up on Yiddish. Not just liberal Jews, but most Jews, gave up Yiddish as a language, and they just dove head first into Hebrew. We thought, “We need to support this country and we need an official Jewish language for all Jews.”
So I was actually stuck when it came to understanding my grandparents growing up. I only understood tiny, miniscule bits and pieces of Yiddish growing up through my grandparents, but not a lot. I think the only reason this film is an anomaly is because people kind of crave hearing Yiddish within the Jewish community after all this time. There have been so many great plays written in Yiddish, and a lot of them are nothing like the orthodoxy on display in this film. Some of these plays had violence and prostitution in them. Yiddish wasn’t some holier-than-thou language. It was a street language! The hard part was that there was so much great Jewish art and literature almost evaporated with the creation of Israel and Hebrew.
That actually does explain to me why in many period pieces where a Jewish person would be speaking, Yiddish would often be labelled in the subtitles whereas the Hebrew was just accepted as Hebrew. I never realized that such a clarification would be needed.
Joshua Z Weinstein: Totally! I saw a film from a long time ago, and I don’t remember the name of it, where James Cagney spoke Yiddish, and that was one of the only times I ever remembered seeing Yiddish spoken on screen. James Cagney: an Irish white dude in New York speaking Yiddish. (laughs) But Yiddish was totally spoken on the streets of New York all the time pre-World War II. My grandfather told me he knew of a lot of black people who learned and spoke Yiddish, so it was a huge part of Jewish culture for a very long time.
You’re working with a lot of people who don’t come from a traditional acting background, but you also come from a documentary background. You were able to observe this story unfolding from a bit more of a distance. Do you think that background helped you to inform the sense of realism here?
Joshua Z Weinstein: I think that I’m just lucky that I’ve been able to be a part of documentaries that have given me unique perspectives. I worked on a documentary filmed in a part of India where I was the first white person who had ever gone there. I’ve been to Tea Party right-wing strongholds where people have gotten in my face. In all situations, no matter how foreign these people seemed to me, in the documentaries I tried to make them as human as possible and show a cultural sense of understanding. I think that humanistic approach to storytelling is something that’s really ingrained into my DNA. I never come at somebody as “the other.” I try to show them and explain to them what’s going on.
That doesn’t mean I don’t overlook faults or differences. There are things that are wrong in the Hassidic world that can be wrong in the world in general, and you can’t deny what those things are. You can say that there are women’s issue in this society and familial issues and you would be absolutely true. The key to a film like this is to make it known that this is one man’s truth within a society and not the entire truth of the society.
It’s refreshing to see a film that proves that orthodox religion has just as many sliding moral scales and barometers as slightly less stringent religions. In this film, people routinely pick their battles, but sometimes in strange ways. Here, Menashe cares deeply about the provenance of a head of lettuce, but he can’t understand why the people in the community would object to him having custody of his son. Was that an important aspect for you to showcase in a film about a religion that’s seen as having a lot of hard-line rules that people are supposed to follow?
Joshua Z Weinstein: Menashe and most of the actors in the film wanted to participate primarily because a lot of people within their community don’t have an outlet to share certain aspects of themselves. When Menashe was making the movie, he would watch various cuts of the movie and he just didn’t get it. He would ask me, “Josh, how would someone who isn’t Jewish understand this? They won’t think it’s funny, and how are they going to care?” He really didn’t get it, and then at Sundance – which is the first time he had ever been in a movie theatre – he’s hearing people laugh and cry, and he said it was one of the most meaningful experiences of his life because he could express a deep truth about himself and the world around him and people appreciated it in ways he never thought people could. I think that idea of sharing truths to create a sense of understanding is what was most important for us, and is most important for all cultures.
This is a film that also showcases how privilege can exist within the same family. Menashe is a strong, working class man just trying to get by in the wake of a tragedy, while his brother-in-law has a good job, is well-to-do, and doesn’t seem to understand Menashe’s grief. It seems very easy to be pious when everything is going well for you, whereas Menashe struggles with it. What was it like working out the family dynamic of this story?
Joshua Z Weinstein: I mean, to a certain extent, that’s just totally how family is, right? (laughs) But I do hope that Isaac, the brother-in-law, is a bit more multi-dimensional than that. Isaac is just really concerned for his nephew and wants what’s best for him. I really love it when people both want to do what’s best for someone and it turns out that both sides are completely different. Of course, natural privilege make piousness easy, but I also think that these concerns are not unfounded. Isaac’s criticism of Menashe for not being there for his wife could be founded. We get upset and we hold these grudges, and sometimes they get twisted in our own minds. I can’t help thinking of my own sibling rivalries and dealing with my own family. These grudges occur in all societies, and I love that there’s so many nuanced stories that we don’t see.
Within the Hassidic world, we’re used to never seeing our conflicts played out. Think about two religious people walking in the street, or if you were to pass by a religious person. Most of the time, you wouldn’t even make eye contact and you would just keep walking. If we think all the time in these narrow terms, it’s easy to assume that this is how people conduct themselves in their own homes. In reality, they’re just like us. They laugh. They cry. They offend and frustrate each other. And because we don’t know these characters outside of this film, I never wanted any of the relationships to deal in full certainties. We don’t fully know the relationships these people have to the Rabbi or what happened between Menashe and Isaac. I wanted people to observe those emotions and recognize them more than I wanted to deal in absolutes.
The film is a great depiction of how people process grief, and how those closer to a loss feel it more profoundly than others, but this story also features a child wrestling with these feelings at a pivotal point in their life. What was it like creating that aspect of the story where this young man has to endure both the grieving process and a custody battle?
Joshua Z Weinstein: It’s such a testament to the actors in the film that this aspect came together as wonderfully as it did. Again, these are mostly non-actors who had no experience in front of a camera, being on set, or memorizing lines. With Ruben, we really got lucky, and he’s a major reason why the story is able to resonate as deep as it does.
I cast Menashe first, and then we cast Ruben a few months later. This is a story that rises and falls on small nuances. The film is constantly just trying to detect on people’s faces exactly what’s happening. That’s universal and everyone will get it. In those first few tapes we did to see how Menashe and Ruben would work together, Menashe really did think that this was his son. You could just see it on his face that he saw something in this young man. It brought out this vulnerability. Ruben is also just the sweetest, nicest kid. Life is crazy around him, but somehow he just finds this way to get by and never let it get to him. He’s incredibly shy and loving, and that was so palpable. He has no interest in being a celebrity, but he would love to act again because he also loves to play piano, so he just sees it as another fun creative outlet. (laughs) They’re dynamic on set guaranteed that no matter what we filmed that day, we would get something special, and they brought those feelings out in that story.
Seeing that you did use a lot of non-actors, did you have a lot of the performers from the Hassidic community coming back to you saying they would want to do another movie even if they’ve never actually seen a movie?
Joshua Z Weinstein: (laughs) I am getting emails everyday from so many Hassidic Jews begging to be in movies. It’s getting scary the amount of requests I’ve been hearing. (laughs) I just kicked the door wide open. But I think everyone in the film wanted to do it, or else they would have avoided it, you know? Everyone wants to be expressive in some ways, especially in this community where there are so few outlets for it. They do have plays within the community and there is acting done within the Hassidic world, so there is that awareness of the craft. Being an actor or being a musician are the two kinds of ways you could have artistic license in that world. Some of these people might have been in a play before, but it’s hard for them to find what would be next for them, but to also balance what’s important to them in the world.
Finally, when you conceived this film, did you ever imagine that any distributor would take a chance on it?
Joshua Z Weinstein: No, I never thought that. (laughs) My own mom told me it was a waste of time and money. (laughs) Thanks, mom! But, I actually do appreciate people around me telling me the truth. You want people to temper your expectations accordingly. But by that same point, any artist who makes something and makes it solely for the reason that they want to be successful seems like they’re going on a fool’s errand. For me, filmmaking and art is about understanding, learning, and exploration, so I was more just fascinated by expressing something within this community and within this story. I was excited that I got to make a film with a story that I think hadn’t been told before, so really anything else is a bonus. I couldn’t be more honoured and privileged that it is getting released in this way, and I hope that someone will let me do it again.
Menashe opens at Varsity Cinemas and Empress Walk in Toronto, Fifth Avenue in Vancouver, and at Forum Cinemas, Cinema du Parc, and Cavendish Mall Cinemas in Montreal on Friday, August 11, 2017.