It’s impossible to talk about the significance of Joshua Z. Weinstein’s Menashe without mentioning a bissel about Yiddish.
Despite the popular misconception that Yiddish is mostly dead, and that it lives on only in cute token phrases like “shmuck,” “maven,” and “glitch” (yes, those are all Yiddishisms), it actually is doing quite well as far as language conservation goes.
Menashe, named for Menashe Lustig, the lead actor of mostly-biographical movie, is not doing nearly as well. His wife in a loveless marriage died. Unfit to raise his son alone, he is at risk of losing custody. Like most Yiddish-speakers, he is very poor. Yiddish has a word for people like this – “shlimazel,” from the Germanic “schlimm” meaning “crooked,” and the Hebrew “mazal,” meaning “luck.” A shlimazel is suspiciously always out of luck, although, Lustig claims, “unlike Menashe in the film, [he’s] not a schlimazel by nature. Maybe just a schlimazel by situation.”
Yiddish, a Hebrew- and Slavic-infused cousin of German, written in the Hebrew alphabet, actually might have over a million speakers — placing it squarely in the “pretty-good-shape” category. Once the language of almost 90% of the world’s Jews (mostly in pre-Holocaust Europe, Israel, and America), Yiddish boasted a robust literary community, including Sholem Aleichem, author of what would become Fiddler on the Roof, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won the Nobel Prize. Many of the theatrical conventions in modern-day Broadway and even Hollywood started in the Yiddish theaters of the Lower East Side around the turn of the last century, which were not only popular attractions, but also major literary institutions.
And yet, there hasn’t been a major Yiddish-language film since before the Holocaust.
Yiddish speakers who lived after the Shoa mostly assimilated into contemporary secular culture, speaking Hebrew, English, or Spanish. A few continued life in cloistered, ultra-Orthodox communities and kept the mameloyshn, or mother tongue. Yiddish lost its prestige status. It became viewed as a dialect to be avoided, until decades after the Holocaust, when nostalgia for the mostly-bygone shprakh was tarnished by the pesky reality that few people actually knew the language anymore. A shande! as it’s said in Yiddish – what a shame.
Joshua Z. Weinstein doesn’t really care about language conservation, he noted in an interview with In Geveb, a digital magazine devoted to Yiddish. The director simply wanted to make a film that could be an anthropological study, a look into the isolated, hyper-religious Hasidic communities of Brooklyn – and of course to tell a good story. As Weinstein himself said, “The plot just allowed us to be there, to experience what life for an ultra-Orthodox person is like. No one knows, no outsider has ever seen it.”
Menashe is an incredible film because it shatters this obvious, inscrutable wall of culture. There is virtually no interaction between Hasidic Jews and other New Yorkers, and yet, instead of feeling alienated and confused by the film, we are drawn into the story as we would with any other. The tensions and dramas portrayed in the film do not make a statement about the vices and virtues of that way of life. They just tell a story in this new, unfamiliar domain.
It works because Weinstein actually worked with the community to make the movie. The actors are all Hasidic. “The beards, the peyes, they had to be real.” And in order to break into the culture, he had to make the film a Yiddish film, with real Yiddish speakers.
The story is simple and sad. The well-meaning father tries to raise a chick with his son. The darkness is peppered with beautiful idiom; when Menashe gets a recipe from a balabuste neighbor, preparing to try his hand at cooking kugel, she obliges, citing, “even a bear can dance.” For those interested in Hasidism or the Yiddish language, this movie is a huge event. For those who aren’t, it’s a very compelling portrait of real lives.
Menashe — United States. Dialog in Yiddish and some English. Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein. First released July 2017. Running time 1hr 22min. Starring Menashe Lustig, Yoel Weisshaus, Ruben Niborski, Meyer Schwartz, and Yoel Falkowitz.