Shooting Yiddish father-and-son drama Menashe set its maker an unusual challenge
BEST KNOWN AS the birthplace of Woody Allen and Lena Dunham’s Girls, Brooklyn is now the setting for the year’s most unlikely foreign-language film, too. Shot almost entirely in Yiddish and filmed in a quiet enclave nestled within America’s busiest metropolis over the course of a year, Menashe was a bold place for director Joshua Z. Weinstein to kick off his feature filmmaking career — not least because he didn’t even speak the language. “I speak very, very little,” the New Yorker admits. “I grew up speaking Hebrew, but if Hebrew is like Arabic, then Yiddish is German.” Fortunately, it was his words the cast were speaking. Set in the Hasidic Jewish New York enclave of Borough Park, Menashe began life as 30 pages of loosely connected scenes in English. “By the end, it became a full-on regular script,” explains Weinstein of his Mike Leigh-like approach, “which [co-writers Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed] and I translated into Yiddish for the actors.” Not only had most of his cast not acted in movies before, many of them hadn’t even
seen any. “[They] thought big emotion was what you should do in a movie,” he says. “[I worked] with them to be smaller and more minimalist, because their faces, their bodies, said so much.”
The film, picked up by Moonlight distributor A24 at Sundance but ineligible for a Best Foreign Language nod (the Academy’s contentious rules mean only films shot outside the US are eligible), is based loosely on the life of its star, little-known Hasidic comic Menashe Lustig. A big man with a big heart hampered by a knack for epic blundering, Menashe fights for custody of his son (played on screen by Ruben Niborski) with his local Jewish elders, who believe the boy would be better off with his uncle’s family. The result, like a low-fi splicing of Kramer Vs. Kramer and Bicycle Thieves, isn’t strictly autobiographical, but it’s “100 per cent [Lustig’s] emotional truth”, notes the director. “He told me early on that his wife had died and he’d lost custody of his son.”
If there was one slight downside to working with Menashe’s game but inexperienced cast, it was in their surprisingly meticulous approach to their dialogue. “It was this Talmudic [scenario] on set, where the actors would literally debate the merits of each word,” laughs Weinstein. “It was hysterical… well, it was maddening to witness. I’d be, like, ‘Let’s get back to work!’”
Did he ever feel like A Serious Man’s put-upon Jewish professor, Larry Gopnik, on set? He laughs. “Every day. Every. Day.”
Street hassle: Menashe Lustig with on-screen offspring Rieven (Ruben Niborski).