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