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How Do You Make a Movie in a Language You Don’t Speak?

Filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein overcame social, cultural, and linguistic barriers to make his heartbreaking new film, "Menashe," about the Hasidic community.

Joshua Z. Weinstein/ Courtesy A24

How do you translate the common Yiddish complaint hakn a tshaynik for an audience that may have never heard the phrase before?  Director Joshua Z. Weinstein went with the literal  “stop banging on the teapot,” which doesn’t quite manage to convey the feeling of frustration and annoyance in the phrase, commonly used to ask a frustrating friend to stop bugging you. Everyone, it turns out, is a lay Yiddish scholar.  “Do you know how many alter babas told me after the screening, it’s not right?” Menashe Lustig, star of Weinstein’s film Menashe, asked me during a recent interview in New York. 

Menashe is a significant cinematic accomplishment on a number of fronts. It is one of the few feature films to intimately explore the world of ultra-Orthodox Jews, in this case the Hasidic residents of Borough Park, an enclave in central Brooklyn. Even more unusual is that Menashe is written and performed almost entirely in Yiddish.

While there have been a handful of previous films about the Hasidic community, none have bothered with Yiddish, usually preferring to have their characters speak in English, often with accents. “Stop with this bullshit,” Lustig insists, frustrated by the Hollywood tradition of transposing all cultures into English. “I love when people give me this feedback, this compliment: somebody told me, ‘They took this film, somebody catches you at these moments, or you set it up?’  It’s the best compliment you have.” To the Hasidim, the movie is accurate enough that some didn’t even know that it was fiction. 

The film, based on Lustig’s own experiences, was written by Weinstein along with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed. It follows Menashe, a widower with a young son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski). It has been a year since his wife’s death, but Menashe shows little interest in remarrying. The stance is frowned upon in his community, where a widower is expected to remarry in order to give his children a mother. 
His rabbi and brother-in-law are insisting he let the child live with his aunt and uncle. Menashe pleads for one last week with his son, and simultaneously attempts to plan a memorial service for the one-year anniversary of his wife’s death. 

The film is comic at times, with Menashe’s attempts at parenting simultaneously ludicrous (gefilte fish for breakfast) and heart-wrenching. Menashe and his son’s week together is interrupted by visits from Menashe’s brother-in-law and rabbi, each of whom plead with him to let his son go. Menashe wants, more than anything, to care for his son, but his grief, his desire to maintain his place in the community, and his unsteady approach toward raising his son make this far more challenging than it might otherwise be.

For secular or modern-minded viewers, the solution to Menashe’s problems is blindingly obvious: Leave Borough Park, take your son, and never look back. But this is a realist film; it seeks to maintain its characters’ worldview. Though his grief is real, Menashe is not a radical thinker. Early on, he gets in trouble at work for protesting the kosher certification of  bug-infested lettuce, and argues that the children of a man who has left the fold should be expelled from their school. This is not a person whose true sympathies lie with the secular world or its values.

Instead, Menashe is a quiet rebel. He refuses to don the traditional black suit jacket and black hat, and tells his son that he shouldn’t worry about what others think. Menashe is intent on finding a means of happily coexisting with the ultra-Orthodox. So is the actor who portrays him. “I’m not a dropout. I’m here to stay,” says Lustig, who himself lives in the Rockland County Hasidic enclave New Square, and who was initially nervous about how the Hasidic community would receive the film. “So it’s different.” If the movie had been made only by outsiders, that would be one thing. But Lustig, the star, is one of their own. 

Menashe begins with a shot of pedestrian traffic on a Borough Park street, waiting a good thirty seconds before Menashe emerges out of a crowd.  “Not only is it a story about one Hasid, but also this is a commentary and a reflection of every New York story,” says Weinstein.  “Here’s a street.  We’ve seen this street how many times in films? I just love that here’s a shot we’ve seen in hundreds of other films, but here’s a completely different take on that exact same shot.”  This is the New York we know—in an entirely unfamiliar language.

Weinstein, the director, does not speak Yiddish. He grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, and while his grandparents spoke Yiddish, he learned Hebrew as a child—after the war, that was the fashion. He became an itinerant filmmaker, traveling the world in search of stories and telling them in their native languages.  Weinstein made films in Hindi, Tagalog, and Mandarin, and grew comfortable working with actors he could not understand. 

Language and culture, he believed, were inseparable, and to perform another culture in English would be to irreparably destroy any sense of realism. “My first movie, I made in India, there was a word, ‘benchod,’ that we kept on translating as ‘motherfucker’ throughout the movie.  Motherfucker, motherfucker.  And then at the very end, before we released it, a translator said it’s not ‘motherfucker,’ it’s ‘sisterfucker.’ And it’s so much dirtier, ‘sisterfucker,’ than how we would have translated it in English. And after that, when that film came out, I realized we learned about culture through the actual words they use.  And to whitewash it and make it easier to comprehend would be a negative.” 

The director had known he was interested in making a film about ultra-Orthodox Jews next, but still lacked a narrative frame for his film. His producer eventually introduced him to Lustig, and to his story of widowhood and grief. “Here was this big bear of a man, had this Charlie Chaplin-esque physical humor, but at the same point, there was something broken, something really deep and emotional inside of him. I am captivated by characters like Menashe. Characters who are not entirely beautiful.” Not a sociology experiment or a plea for tolerance, Menashe is wise enough to treat its protagonist as simultaneously silly, vengeful, kind, and vain—in other words, as human.

Menashe is a film about a reclusive community made in a language spoken by few Americans outside the ultra-Orthodox world. It is, in some ways, intended for that very audience, and yet most ultra-Orthodox Jews abjure movies—at least officially.  “People in this world, when we showed them clips, they’d never seen a film before,” said Weinstein. “This is like literally an apparition.”  Lustig believes the ultra-Orthodox community, always slow to adapt to technological change, is belatedly coming to accept feature filmmaking as another approved technology, just as radios, computers, and cellphones eventually found a tenuous place in Hasidic society. “There’s such a lack of entertainment,” argues Lustig. “If you didn’t have this, people would go other places and try to seek material from Christians, try everything, because you’re hungry, you’re starving for something. We’ve got people born with talent to be directors. We have enough rabbis!” 

Many Borough Park residents were unsettled by the prospect of being filmed. “We lost locations,” remembers Weinstein. “People just don’t understand or want to be involved with this.” Auditioning actors, too, would vanish, spooked by whispers from the community about potential repercussions. Weinstein was insistent that his film would be fair-minded: “I always told everyone this. This is going to be an honest portrayal of the community. It was not going to be glorifying, it was not going to be tabloidesque negative, it was going to be honest.”