Menashe: The Hollywood Hasid

The Jewish Voice - - SPECIAL FEATURES -

Imag­ine: you feel it deep in your soul - it’s your dream to be­come an ac­tor. Now imag­ine: you are a Ha­sidic Jew who lives in the clois­tered com­mu­nity of New Square where no one watches tele­vi­sion or movies and most peo­ple don’t even know what an ac­tor is.

Meet Menashe Lustig: Ha­sidic ac­tor.

Menashe is the star of the crit­i­cally ac­claimed film Menashe, loosely based on his life, which pre­miered at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val in Jan­uary and was re­leased more broadly this sum­mer. It has re­ceived rave re­views, gar­ner­ing a 93% “fresh” score on the re­view ag­gre­ga­tor Rot­ten To­ma­toes. Not bad for a film set in Bor­ough Park about Ha­sidic Jews which is in Yid­dish. And not bad for its star Menashe Lustig.

Iron­i­cally, Menashe Lustig’s per­sonal story is in some ways more of a “Hollywood story” than the movie Menashe based on his life. If that makes sense.

Lustig ex­plains in a Jewlar­i­ous in­ter­view, “In the nat­u­ral way, it would be very dif­fi­cult to ex­plain this, how I got into this movie. It could only be de­scribed as hashgucha pratis (Divine intervention). Ev­ery­one has to know what his abil­i­ties are. I was born with a tal­ent to act but I didn’t know what to do with this tal­ent. In Ha­sidic cir­cles, they have bad­chanim (jesters), but that’s not me. So I was al­ways pray­ing to God, ask­ing him to help me find my way. But I didn’t want to go out from my com­mu­nity. I am from New Square and I like my com­mu­nity.”

Lustig dis­cussed his predica­ment with his brother in law, Ha­sidic mu­si­cian and en­ter­tainer Lipa Sh­meltzer who ad­vised him to make some videos and put them on­line. He up­loaded a few videos to YouTube, but in Lustig’s words, “I didn’t know how to man­age things.”

En­ter Josh We­in­stein. We­in­stein is a filmmaker from New York, of doc­u­men­taries pri­mar­ily, who de­cided that he wanted to make a film about the lit­tle known com­mu­nity in his back yard: Ha­sidim. He con­tacted Lipa Sh­meltzer and through that meet­ing met Menashe. “He saw me act­ing to­gether with Lipa,” says Lustig. “He watched the clip that I put on YouTube and found that I was very nat­u­ral. He called me and asked me if I act nor­mally. I told him that I love to act, but in my cir­cles, peo­ple aren’t into it. So he said, how about mak­ing some­thing for me. I said, it will never hap­pen. I told him my story and he wanted to come to my house in New Square. We talked for hours and hours and he said he will do any­thing to make it kosher.”

De­spite his dream of be­com­ing an ac­tor, Menashe was still uncertain. He didn’t want to do any­thing that would cause dis­com­fort to his New Square Ha­sidic com­mu­nity, or worse, por­tray Ju­daism in a neg­a­tive light. That’s when he re­ceived a phone call from Danny Fin­kle­man, a filmmaker who knew both We­in­stein and Lustig, and him­self a Lubav­itcher Has­sid. “Danny told me that this could be a big Kid­dush Hashem (sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion of God’s name). You have to do it. This is an op­por­tu­nity that won’t come again”.

Lustig agreed. He and We­in­stein be­gan to meet for long in­ter­view ses­sions and We­in­stein be­came par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in a tragedy that had taken place in Menashe’s life: his wife had passed away and his Rabbi had ad­vised that his son should not move with him to New York un­til Menashe re­mar­ried, as the Rabbi felt that a sta­ble fam­ily life was crit­i­cal for the young boy’s de­vel­op­ment. This was the back­bone that formed the story be­hind Menashe, the film.

Three years af­ter their ini­tial con­ver­sa­tions, Menashe Lustig was in the au­di­ence at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val in Salt Lake City watch­ing 2000 peo­ple watch­ing him. The re­cep­tion to the film has been over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive, per­haps most sur­pris­ingly, amongst peo­ple who are not Jewish. “At the screen­ing in Utah,” Lustig re­lates, “A lady came up to me. She wasn’t Jewish. She said, ‘I am not sure what you do when you go to the mik­vah, but the mes­sage I take away is that there is hope’. That’s the mes­sage of this film. She’s right be­cause I had times when I was deep in de­pres­sion. And now…I never thought one day ev­ery­one would be watch­ing my story.”

When asked if he has any ad­vice for oth­ers who are also try­ing to find their way, Lustig of­fers the fol­low­ing ad­vice. “I am not a pain­ter, and I am not a cook. My tal­ent is act­ing. I am not here to be a star; I am just here to use my tal­ents. And that’s what ev­ery­one should do. Find your tal­ent. Also I would tell peo­ple what my rabbi says. What­ever you do, prayer is the key. Ask the Rib­bono Shel Olam (Mas­ter of the Uni­verse). Ask him for help and daven. Tell him, ‘I am re­ly­ing on you. Help me do the right thing’. You have to choose your own path. But you have to talk to God and he will help guide you.”

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