Un­ortho­dox Ap­proach

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Simi Hor­witz

How to make a Yid­dish movie with­out know­ing Yid­dish.

Doc­u­men­tar­ian Joshua Z. We­in­stein, 33, who dubs him­self a hu­man­ist film­maker, says he never wanted to make a Jewish movie, but rather one that ex­plores the in­ter­play (maybe the clash) be­tween faith and moder­nity. It’s al­most — but not quite — in­ci­den­tal that his char­ac­ters are Yid­dish-speak­ing Ha­sidim, mem­bers of the most aus­tere sects liv­ing in the Boro Park sec­tion of Brook­lyn.

“Me­nashe,” his the­atri­cal film de­but, is be­ing billed as the first Yid­dish­language film to hit the screen in more than 70 years — not in­clud­ing Eve An­nen­berg’s 2010 “Romeo & Juliet in Yid­dish.” Most of the per­form­ers have never even seen a film, many don’t own tele­vi­sions. They are prac­tic­ing, ob­ser­vant ul­tra-Or­tho­dox Jews.

In a Paddy Chayef­sky “Marty” vein, “Me­nashe” tells the dis­turb­ing story of a round, child­like wid­ower (loosely based on the ex­pe­ri­ences of its star, Me­nashe Lustig) who is forced to re­lin­quish cus­tody of his young son, Rieven (Ruben Ni­borski), be­cause Ha­sidic tra­di­tion dic­tates that a child be raised in a home with a mother or

sur­ro­gate mother. If Me­nashe re­fuses to hand over his son to his mar­ried brother- in- law, Eizik ( Yoel Weis­shaus), a con­de­scend­ing prig who holds Me­nashe in ut­ter con­tempt as a bum­bling, in­ept fool, the child may be ex­pelled from his yeshiva.

“I wanted to ex­plore the na­ture of faith and how it af­fects some­one,” said We­in­stein, who met me on 13th Av­enue, in a noisy Boro Park restau­rant filled with head-cov­ered women (some ac­com­pa­nied by ba­bies in strollers) and flanked by ag­ing ten­e­ment build­ings boast­ing Yid­dish sig­nage. It was a few blocks from the mas­sive rust­ing El on 51st Street. Much of the shoot­ing took place on th­ese streets.

“I love the fact that th­ese peo­ple are un­in­hib­ited by moder­nity. They speak their minds. With the ad­vent of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, some­thing has been lost through­out the cul­ture. Ec­cen­tric­ity has given way to ho­mo­gene­ity. There are fewer clearly marked re­gional ac­cents. But here, in this com­mu­nity, there’s still some­thing unique, and I re­spect that.” We­in­stein said. He ges­tured at the yarmulke on his head: “I never wear it. But I do when I come into this neigh­bor­hood. It’s a sign of re­spect.”

Best known as a cin­e­matog­ra­pher on doc­u­men­taries, We­in­stein was look­ing for a project that was se­ri­ous but not so dark that he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

His fas­ci­na­tion with Brook­lyn and its ul­tra-Or­tho­dox pop­u­la­tion dates back to his child­hood, when he vis­ited and later worked at his grand­fa­ther’s toy store (the iconic Red’s Ware­house Out­let in Mill Basin and Ca­nar­sie).

More re­cently he moved to Crown Heights (ad­mit­tedly the Caribbean sec­tion), but he spent much of his free time walk­ing around those re­li­gious en­claves that only cap­ti­vated him fur­ther with each ex­po­sure — from Crown Heights to Boro Park and be­yond, to com­mu­ni­ties in up­state New York. He was drawn to the char­ac­ters, an amal­gam of messy con­tra­dic­tions who also spoke to his nos­tal­gia, evok­ing the friends, ac­quain­tances and neigh­bors of rel­a­tives he re­called ( or per­haps re-imag­ined) from child­hood.

“Their rit­u­als, spec­ta­cles and cel­e­bra­tions were won­der­fully mys­ti­fy­ing,” he said. “What I found was so op­posed to the usual nar­ra­tive pre­sented in the New York Post, with its de­scrip­tions of mo­lesta­tion within the Ha­sidic com­mu­nity and or­gans be­ing sold on the black mar­ket. I wanted to cre­ate a film that showed the com­mu­nity’s com­plex­ity and nu­ance. It had never been done. Boaz Yakin’s ‘A Price Above Ru­bies, or Sid­ney Lumet’s ‘A Stranger Among Us’ is not a valid ex­am­ple).”

To be fully au­then­tic the film had to be spo­ken in Yid­dish. The prob­lem was that he knew no Yid­dish, short of a few phrases picked up from his grand­par­ents. At­tend­ing a Con­ser­va­tive Jewish day school, like many post-World War II Amer­i­can Jewish young­sters, he learned He­brew.

The first time he learned Yid­dish was on the set. He re­al­ized there were many dif­fer­ent Yid­dish di­alects, which is why he set his story in Boro Park, as vir­tu­ally ev­ery Yid­dish

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