With plenty of notches already in his documentary-filmmaking belt, Joshua Weinstein directed his first feature-length narrative film.
Oh, and it’s in Yiddish.
“It was the only way to accurately portray the Chasidic world,” Weinstein, who does not speak the language, explained of the film Menashe. “Their conversations are in Yiddish — that’s what their life is like — and to do it in English would have just felt contrived.”
A lot of the script was first written in English, and translators provided a Yiddish version.
Menashe — also the first Yiddish film in about 70 years — follows the story of Menashe, a recent widower and single father. The community rabbi decided that his son cannot live with him until he remarries — constituting a proper upbringing of “a nice wife, a nice home and nice dishes” — leaving his 10-year-old Rieven to live with his uncle, Menashe’s late wife’s brother.
After a year, Menashe stated he still won’t marry just any woman who can provide a home, which is something he attempts to prove he can do on his own.
Weinstein has a documentary background, exploring tight-knit communities from small villages in India to marijuana growers in Montana.
“You can’t have expectations because humanity exists everywhere and it just takes time to discover it,” he said.
Weinstein began his research in the Chasidic community in September 2014 and started filming in August 2015. Much of that first year was comprised of casting.
Of course, there were some obstacles. Unlike typical documentary fashion, Weinstein couldn’t just walk down a Chasidic street and start filming.
Only a few handfuls of Orthodox individuals auditioned. Some quit once cast.
“You had to recreate everything if you want to show an authentic representation,” he noted.
Weinstein’s original idea surrounded the dynamic between a father and father-in-law, but that developed deeper once he met his lead, Menashe Lustig.
The film is based on Lustig’s life, in which he was also widowed and required to send his son to live with the school’s principal.
They changed the original script to base it more on Lustig.
“I’ve found that all my films have to do with parents and children, and that relationship is something that’s universal,” Weinstein added. “There’s something completely unique to every relationship with your parents — that can be maddening, and at the same point it’s filled with deep love — and it’s something that no matter how different you are, what language you [speak], where you live, people understand that.”
Although he disagrees with how Lustig’s real-life custody saga played out, Weinstein said he’s still keenly compassionate.
“It does make you angry, for sure, but I also try not to judge too much because every culture, society we’re in, every country, people have their own norms and laws. … I could also criticize, in our regular American society as well, disgusting aspects of it,” he said.
Weinstein grew up in a secular home in Morristown, N.J., and often visited New York City, where his grandparents lived.
He recalled visiting Borough Park during Lag B’Omer.
“These are days that a society that was always closed off, people were open and friendly,” Weinstein recalled. “Religion is so much about these big, visual, spiritual moments, and I just knew when I saw Lag B’Omer that day and saw thousands of people singing and dancing, and this huge pyrotechnics in the middle of a street in New York City — I knew this had to be a moment that I made a film around.”
The film is Weinstein’s interpretation of Lustig’s “emotional truth,” though some characters and situations were fictionalized. After all, the first time Lustig stepped into a movie theater was the Sundance Film Festival viewing of his own role.
“I wanted to capture what it felt like during this very difficult time of grief, of mourning, and how you move past that,” he said.
“I love New York City,” Weinstein continued. “I love the fact that I can be with somebody from Ghana in the Bronx, someone from Myanmar in Queens, and then someone who literally only spoke Yiddish their entire life in Brooklyn. I want to explore and share a world that people have not.”
Menashe opens at the Ritz East Aug. 18.
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