5th Chicago Critics Film Festival selection
I recently re-watched 1983’s Michael Keaton headliner Mr. Mom and participated in a lengthy podcast discussion on the film and its themes with the fine folks over at Feelin’ Film. In talking about the successes and failures watching Keaton’s character try to be a full-time parent, the panel and I couldn’t help but compare those experiences to our own as fellow dads. There’s a universal wealth about the fatherhood experience that Mr. Mom can convey. Another film that does that from an entirely different perspective is Menashe, another one of A24’s prestigious Sundance Film Festival acquisitions and feature film directorial debut of Joshua Z. Weinstein. The film opens in Chicago on August 11th.
Imagine a widower trying to raise a pre-teen son in Brooklyn. He’s a careless man with a lowly minimum wage job that carries long hours and a cruel boss. The man comes from a community where raising children was the woman’s role and now he is thrust into figuring that out the hard way. The father is still grieving the loss of his wife and faces pressure from his immediate family to remarry or have his son be moved to a better living situation.
Can you see such a man? I don’t want to get all Matthew McConaughey from A Time to Kill, but now picture that father as a Jewish man speaking a foreign language and a person of devout faith. That’s Menashe Lustig of Menashe. Does your perspective change? It’s shouldn’t and it must be said again:
LESSON #1: FATHERHOOD CARRIES UNIVERSAL TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS-- To put it simply, every man is human and every kid is a kid, no matter what culture they represent. Both of have hopes and dreams and both must learn to face the limitations of life. Children are going to have difficult challenges that a father is not going to immediately have answers for. Not every choice a father makes is going to work and not every wish and dream for their child is going to be fulfilled, especially if they are doing it alone. All fathers face those rigors.
Filmed in the vibrant Borough Park Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn with mostly untrained citizens and non-actors, Menashe is a week-long journey through the fatherhood experience of Lustig. Menashe is working at a convenience store around hours of prayer time among the local head rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) and his followers. In accordance with their customs, a man without a wife is not allowed to raise a child, meaning his ten-year-old son Reiven (Ruben Niborski) must live with his well-off uncle Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) as a favor until Menashe can remarry.
Lustig, with a motivation of “father knows best,” misses his son terribly and is granted one week to prove he can handle all of the necessary parental duties and host an upcoming memorial dinner for his departed wife. The overextended Menashe wants to show independence and win back community and familial respect, but he’s more than a bit of a schlimazel. He’s a what? I’m glad you asked.
LESSON #2: THE DEFINITION OF A “SCHLIMAZEL” AND THE MEANING OF “MENSASHE”-- According to Wikipedia, a schlimazel is a “chronically unlucky person.” That fits the ever-tardy Menashe Lustig like a warm sweater. His own name means “making forgetfulness.” Loosely based on a time in Lustig’s own life, the working father is already working from behind.
Those are not the only curveball terms. Menashe is the first Yiddish language film in 60 years after a rich history in the early 20th century. Keep that Wikipedia list or Google Translate app handy to absorb words like “ruv,” “shabbat,” “mensch,” “talmud,” and “kugel.” No matter how foreign, even on domestic soil, Menashe’s world appears to be, you won’t be lost. You’ll be absorbed. The aforementioned commonality is what wins. Any good man can grow from this film.
Weinstein writes and directs what constitutes as a love letter to a culture, a community, and to the essence of fatherhood. The lead’s personal plight is a compelling one done with grace and admiration for attaching the right layer of empathy. It’s not overly heavy in any particular way, but Menashe carries enough honesty, enough will, and enough power to break any father’s heart. There’s strength to be found in that.
LESSON #3: THE UNBREAKABLE BOND BETWEEN FATHER AND SON-- One can understand the Torah’s doctrine that reads “it is not good for man to be alone.” Every child, especially a boy, needs and deserves a mother, just as two parents can create a stable home. Still, a good father is just as essential and can be driven, when alone or not, to connect to his children. Fathers teach on the ways of the world. They are an example to emulate from which a new man can emerge. Plain and simple, if your son was taken away as Reiven was, you would feel the same loss and broken bond as Menashe.