Large white man with jewish hat and wire rimmed glasses, a longish brown beard wearing a white collared button down shirt and black button vest his hand gesturing as he talks to someone to his right

Menashe (Menashe Lustig, left) steals a few minutes with his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), who has been taken away from him following his wife’s death. (Photo by Wehkamp Photography)

Losing your wife is tough enough. Imagine losing your wife and subsequently being told you’re no longer fit to raise your son.

That’s the situation the title character faces in Menashe, an intimate story set in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn. Directed and co-written (in Yiddish) by Joshua Z. Weinstein, the film is said to be inspired by the real-life experiences of its star, Menashe Lustig.

We first meet Menashe, a clerk in a Hasidic grocery, nearly a year after his wife’s death. We learn he’s been forced to give up his adolescent son to his married brother-in-law, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus). Why? Because according to his rabbi’s reading of the Torah, the boy is better off being raised in a two-parent household.

Menashe chafes against the order because he loves his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), and is lonely living on his own. However, there’s little he can do about it short of remarrying, which he seems unprepared to do. If Menashe tries to take Rieven back, he’s warned, the boy will be expelled from the local Hasidic school.

Though the film may sound like a condemnation of rigidly controlled societies like the one in which it’s set, the situation is not quite so black-and-white. The more we see of Menashe’s life, the more we wonder whether living with him is in the boy’s best interests.

Menashe is a good man, but he seems incapable of getting through a day without screwing up in one way or another. Not only is he perpetually late and perennially broke, but he can’t even make a simple delivery without creating a major disaster.

A chance to prove himself arrives when Menashe begins making plans for his wife’s memorial service. Though his well-off brother-in-law points out that he’s better equipped to host it, and though a kind neighbor offers to bake kugel for the event, Menashe insists on doing everything himself. In response, his rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) gives him a little leeway by allowing him to take his son back until the service.

The situation seems ripe for a warm and life-altering conclusion, and some viewers may be disappointed that filmmaker Weinstein has something subtler in mind. Perhaps because his previous work has focused on documentaries, the director seems content to observe life rather than mold it into dramatically satisfying patterns.

Not that the film doesn’t give us interesting things to observe. For one thing, it allows us a glimpse inside a guarded society that often seems like a throwback to a patriarchal and tradition-bound past. (The tale reportedly was filmed in secret in the Brooklyn Hasidic neighborhood where it takes place.)

The film also gives us ample time to make up our own minds about Menashe and the people in his life. Our sympathies naturally lie with the father who’s trying to reconnect with his son, and against the people who are keeping them apart. The performances at first support this feeling: Lustig’s Menashe has a warmly playful relationship with Rieven, while Weishauss’s Eizik seems rigid and distant. But as Menashe’s incompetence continually has a negative effect on his son, our sympathies may become divided.

In a similar way, even those liberal enough to reject Hasidism may decide the real problem is that Menashe is a poor fit for its strictures about family and lifestyle. Indeed, he seems to envy the freedoms his Hispanic coworkers appear to enjoy.

Perhaps if Menashe had been born into another culture, he never would have been married to begin with. But he was born into his culture and he was married and subsequently had a son, all of which trap him in a situation that appears to have no easy solution.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Menashe's local opening, originally scheduled for Friday, Sept1 at the Gateway Film Center, has been postponed. For information about this and other upcoming films, visit

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