“People love to be transported somewhere else,” says Joshua Z Weinstein, director and co-writer of “Menashe.” “It’s exciting to be transported to somewhere new that’s just around the corner.”
For his first feature film, Weinstein’s “somewhere else” is an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Brooklyn. The film is loosely based on the real life of star Menashe Lustig, who plays a widower (also named Menashe) who is forbidden from taking custody of his son unless he remarries, as Hasidic law dictates that a child must be raised by a mother and a father. Complicating matters is a rule that prohibits Hasidim from touching people of the opposite sex unless they are blood relations; one of Menashe’s concerns is that even if he remarries, his new wife could not even give his son a hug.
As the one-year anniversary of his wife’s death approaches and Menashe is allowed a few days with his son, the pressure for him to marry gets even stronger — as does Menashe’s resistance.
“To secular people, there’s a sense that these people must be evil, must be hateful, must be spiteful,” Weinstein says. “But really it’s just a complete misunderstanding of unknowing.”
Weinstein and Lustig hope “Menashe” gives outsiders a glimpse into an often-closed world so they can learn not just about its rules, but also about its joy and humanity.
“Usually, movies about religious people are about them having awful lives, and then leaving,” Weinstein says. “As secular people, we assume if life is bad, you move on. But for me I was more interested in why people chose to stay.”
In the film, Menashe has his reasons to stay faithful, even though it means his son is forced to live with his brother- and sister-in-law.
“I love the place where I am,” Lustig says of his Hasidic faith. “First of all, I grew up there. Second of all, I am a deep believer about the spiritual, the mystic — I connect to that. I couldn’t find it other places. And I should be alone in other places, not be connected to my community? It would be for me very hard.”
There is irony, of course, in making a movie about a community that usually doesn’t go to movies (Lustig says he had seen only one film — “Fiddler on the Roof” — before shooting). Lustig, though, thinks members of his community would like “Menashe.”
“It’s not negative and it’s very decent,” he says.
He even has an idea about how to entice the Hasidic community to go see movies. “You can never have cinema for Orthodox people,” he says. “A lot of times I say for a joke, OK, change the name. Call it a nice name. Make it ‘Congregation of Jacob.’ Then they will go.”