This is a small-scoped, gentle little film that will make you feel
like a foreigner in your own country.
Director Joshua Z. Weinstein is a veteran documentarian who doesn't
speak Yiddish, either. But he
takes us to the ultra-conservative Hasidic community in Brooklyn, where
religion and family and culture and context and neighborhood are all
interlocked. And he chooses
“real” people, not Hollywood actors, to tell this tender, poignant
story about the widower who just wants to be with his son.
Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is very much a part of this subculture,
and he doesn't have any intention of leaving it.
And yet, he's at odds with it.
His wife, Leah, has died (of a blood clot), and the community
assumes that a man cannot raise a child by himself.
The child must be in a “proper” household, that is, with a
husband and wife together, and so Menashe's son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski)
has been living with Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), Leah's brother, and his wife.
Eizik is a proud and arrogant man who obviously looks down on
Menashe, and tells Rieven that Menashe did not properly care for his
mother, Leah. Menashe knows
that Eizik has no respect for him, which makes it even more difficult for
him to turn over Rieven to Eizik, so he appeals to the Rabbi, the Ruv
(Meyer Schwartz), who gives Menashe one week of custody before he must
comply with the community's standards.
Menashe does not even consider taking his son and running away.
This creates a tension in the viewer, because we in the
“goyim,” or Gentile, American culture just assume that all Menashe
would have to do is run away with his son to almost anywhere else in the
United States, even to a different part of Brooklyn, and any judge would
award him full custody. But
instead, Menashe tries to appeal to Eizik's sensitivity (not happening) or
the Ruv's willingness to grant an exception (also not happening).
We feel for Menashe, because we, too, have been in situations where
the right path seems obvious to us, but not to everyone around us.
Menashe is also less than a smashing success at work.
He a clerk in a small kosher grocerty store, but he keeps messing
up. He spills product, he's
late, he argues with the steely-eyed owner about not washing the lettuce
before selling it. Menashe
manages some graceful moments with his son.
He buys him a baby chick to feed.
They laugh over shared memories.
But Menashe doesn't know the first thing about cooking, or
housekeeping, or tutoring. He
wants to drag Rieven along when he gets together with his drinking
buddies, but doesn't have a radio or television in his tiny apartment,
much less a computer. He seems
a part of a previous century, somehow thrown into the modern world with
little idea how to navigate it.
Director Weinstein allows much to be untranslated:
not only all the Jewish prayer rituals, but even the Spanish spoken
by a couple of the grocery store employees.
(Ironically, Menashe speaks English with them, the only
non-subtitled parts of the movie.)
Just for a little while (82 minutes), the viewer is transported to
an unfamiliar world, where we wouldn't otherwise have access.
But it's a bittersweet journey, and one littered with abject
disappointments and slow-burning frustrations.