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When Rieven asks his father, who wears a black yarmulke and whose tzitzit, or prayer shawl fringes, dangle out from under his shirt like curtain tassels on a windy day, “Why don’t you wear a hat and coat like everyone else?
You’d look much nicer,” I found myself thinking: Yeah, Menashe, why don’t you?
He gets drunk on a night out with his son, oversleeps, then gives Rieven Coke and cake for breakfast.
Our desire to see Menashe win custody of Rieven is complicated by the fact that he is far from an ideal father.
Having been widowed for a year, Menashe wants to raise his ten-year-old son, Rieven, by himself. As the Book of Genesis says: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Until Menashe remarries, a rabbi decrees, Rieven is to be left in the custody of his uncle and aunt.
But Menashe doesn’t wish to remarry, and the rabbi gives him a week to prove himself as a single father.
One of the film’s most riveting scenes is without dialogue: we simply watch as Menashe moves about his cramped apartment, knocking over a plastic cup here, scratching his belly there.The same unpolished veneer characterizes the film’s visuals.At one point, Menashe and Rieven look for decorations to liven up the bare walls of their apartment. Instead, they settle on a watercolor portrait of a rabbi, set against a pinkish sunset. For a film that focuses on parent-child relations in the wake of a tragic death, Menashe remarkably eschews sentimentality or lazy conjecture. The couple met through a matchmaker on a mutual trip to Israel, and spent most of their time together fighting.Much like the Satmars of Williamsburg, they belong to a zealous, antimodernist branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, though one that is less vocal against the State of Israel than the Satmars.Lustig himself is a member of a far smaller sect, called Skver, that is based in New Square, a village in Rockland County, New York, where men and women walk on separate sides of the street.Even after they agreed to participate in the film, many of the actors soon dropped out, citing rabbinical prohibitions or cold feet.A full cast list has yet to be released; the filmmakers are worried that even extras could face excommunication.How insular a community is may be measured by its share of members who wish to appear on camera.When a casting call went out to New York’s ultra-Orthodox community, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands, to appear in Menashe, a feature film set in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, only sixty people showed up. Weinstein, the film’s director, told an interviewer.A large part reserved for Menashe’s father-in-law, for example, had to be scrapped: the actor playing the role pulled out after shooting began. Yiddish is the main language spoken by most ultra-Orthodox Hasidim (but not by Chabadniks or Lithuanian Orthodox Jews, who converse in Hebrew).Yet neither Weinstein nor his fellow writers speak it.