Josh Weinstein (Director), Menashe Lustig (Star) of the film Menashe (2017)
I met with Joshua Weinstein, director, and Menashe Lustig, actor, in early May when they were in Boston to screen Menashe, one of the very few full-length narrative films in Yiddish to appear in recent years, at the Boston International Film Festival. The following edited transcript is based on that interview.
The film not only stars Menashe Lustig, a Skver Hasid, but is based on his life story. A widower in his thirties, Lustig was faced with the strong urging from his community that he yield the rearing of his then nine-year old son to others until he could remarry and newly set up a “complete” household. The film’s central drama is inspired by Lustig’s response to that pressure from the community.
Menashe opened in New York and Los Angeles on July 28th and opens in Boston on August 18th.
A feature piece based on this interview which appeared the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website on on July 25th can be found here.
CM (Charles Munitz, aka BADMan): I saw the film twice and really loved it. In the film I noticed there was a point at which the Yiddish phrase hock in chinik was translated more or less as why are you hitting my teapot which made we want to ask about the translation. It colloquially means why are you busting my chops?
JW (Joshua Weinstein): I love translating things literally. How you speak Yiddish is full of authentic specifics and if you translate more colloquially you lose some of the texture.
CM: So you knew this was an issue?
JW: Yes, we knew every word and it was highly debated. It was almost like translating the Talmud in some way.
ML (Menashe Lustig): Everyone who knows Yiddish asks the same question.
CM: Yeah, exactly. It stuck out like a sore thumb. Anyway, as they say Gai gezunterhait! (Go in good health! or whatever!) Josh, you spoke of your own upbringing as a non-observant liberal Jew in the New York area. Where did you grow up by the way?
JW: Born in the city, grew up in Jersey. Both my parents were from East New York.
CM: You spoke about wanting to search out your Jewish background, but what got you particularly interested in the Hasidim, and how did you particularly land on the Skver Hasidim?
JW: I’ve been involved in making documentaries for the past dozen years. I just love trying to understand the world by going into small, closed societies and trying to understand them, honestly represent them, and to tell their stories – the good, the bad and everything. In many ways, this movie shouldn’t have been made – it could have fallen apart at any moment – and it was that challenge that excited me even more than the Jewish focus.
CM: How did you guys meet?
ML: He approached me in Flatbush. Josh was searching for somebody to make a movie and I had been acting very locally in the Hasidic community. I did acting more on my own because I was interested in exploring my own thoughts and motivations, but I did it in a very non-professional way. Then Josh approached me after he saw me in a short local Hasidic commercial. We talked together and he said “I’d like to make a film with you!” So, this kind of thing sometimes can happen!
JW: You can’t cast a film like this in the usual way – no casting agencies for this kind of authentic group exist. You had to go in there, put on a yarmulke, hang out, show up every single day and then do these casting tapes. When Menashe came along, the quality of his performance was evident – the intensity of his eyes, his humor, his overall performance. I immediately saw an incredible actor and that he had the talent, ability and the drive to hold a feature together. If Menashe wanted to be a secular actor, he could be very successful at it. I don’t see why he couldn’t star, for example, in a Coen brothers film. He has a persona that oozes off the screen and you can’t look away from it, you’re completely hungry to see more. So it was a joy to work with Menashe and in every single scene he always brought something new and interesting and completely unique to it in the way that only great actors can. The success of the film is dependent on him, which is why the name of the film is the same as his name. It is, in many ways, his story, and it is his brilliance that makes the film what it is.
CM: I loved your performance, Menashe. Could you tell me a little bit about the relation between you, Menashe Lustig, and the character in the film?
ML: It’s my story. This whole movie is 95% a true story. We just touched up a little bit – mostly small, minor things.
JW: The film certainly tells an emotionally true story. This is how Menashe Lustig actually felt going through what he did.
JW: The meal which plays such a central role in the film, and even the role of the brother-in-law who is so central to the film, indeed were made up. But in emotional terms, I very much wanted to convey the very difficult feelings Menashe had in his own life situation.
ML: In actuality it was not specifically, as it is in the movie, the rabbi who said “you cannot keep your son,” but more a series of my son’s educators.
JW: In the more secular Western world, it is commonplace for people encountering a tragic opposition to walk away but that’s not what Menashe’s character, as a member of a close-knit Hasidic community, was inclined to do, because that’s not what people in the Hasidic world do on an everyday basis. That was compelling to me.
CM: Menashe, in actuality is your son is in foster care?
ML: Yes, part-time, but in a less formal way than one might think of foster care in the secular world.
CM: How old is he?
ML: Now he’s fourteen. But when the story happened he was more like the child in the movie, about nine years old.
CM: The kid in the film (Ruben Niborski) was incredible by the way.
JW: I cast both of them in 2014 and the first time I put them in a scene I knew there was a movie that could hold together.
ML: It was great chemistry – very close.
CM: Tell me a bit about doing a film entirely in Yiddish? It’s one of the few full-length narrative films in Yiddish to be made in the last seventy years.
JW: It’s because it was so impossible to do that made it interesting. In a way, everything has been seen before, so, like taking a circus ride, I wanted the challenge. I had already done documenatary films in Mandarin and Hindi so I wasn’t scared about working in another language. And I thought that you couldn’t really make this film in English. If it weren’t going to be in Yiddish then why not just make Home Alone 7 or something? As I saw it, it couldn’t have been made in any other way, and I found that challenge exciting.
CM: Is this your first narrative film?
CM: It’s an incredible job for the first time out – very moving, compelling and subtle. The scene at the memorial dinner Menashe prepares, with the Ruv and the kugel, is so powerful. The film doesn’t draw back from showing the sternness of community judgment and all sorts of difficult personal interrelations, but this little touch of wisdom rises up out of that in a beautiful way.
JW: Exactly. There are no villains in this movie. Everyone, in some way or other, is trying to do the right thing, and there is something good about everyone.
ML: Our goal in this film is to be positive, and we intentionally didn’t hire actors who might have been inclined to be highly critical or negative in their portrayals. The idea was to have a large goal.
CM: What was the response of the community to the film? Did members of the community appreciate this piece of popular culture?
ML: Some were positive, some not. Some people said it’s like you take a pig and you slaughter it in a kosher way. Other people recognized that I had some kind of acting talent and that it was worthwhile to pursue it somehow. It felt like a waste for me not to pursue it, and it felt, in a way, like an act of God, how Josh and I got to meet and to work together successfully. We even had a Muslim guy (Moussa Sayed) who participated in the writing of the script.
JW: Moussa’s a friend of mine who’s made some films.
CM: What was the decision on the production team about using Yiddish exclusively?
JW: It was all my insane idea.
CM: So you didn’t have producers, co-producers, executive producers you needed to convince?
JW: My Mom thought it was crazy. I think anyone who signed up to participate in some way with this film knew this was my goal and realized that it was not going to be easy but it would be completely unique and something very rarely made and that excited the team.
CM: What was your documentary experience?
JW: I made two hour-long documentaries, one in India about a disabled Indian doctor who’s a bit of a curmudgeon. I worked as a cinematographer on a bunch of documentaries with award winning directors. I’ve been on film sets for about a dozen years.
CM: How did you fund this film?
JW: It was really difficult. It came in fits and starts. We have some great executive producers who’ve helped fund it, including Chris Columbus (of Home Alone fame). It came little by little.
CM: There were some mentions in your notes about threats to people who acted in the film.
ML: They weren’t really threats, but there was some heat, some serious criticism of the film from the Hasidic community. Frankly, I was afraid they were going to chuck me out.
JW: They may have threatened that in some way, but they didn’t do it.
ML: The Hasidic guy who convinced me to do this movie said people would see it and appreciate it. He was a Lubavitch guy, and the Lubavitchers are much closer to the idea of using technology to good ends than the Skver Hasidim. They’re quite a bit more openminded in that way.
CM: Isn’t the store B&H Photo run by the Hasidim?
ML: Yes, but that’s the Satmar Hasidim. And they’re into selling it more than using it.
JW: Of the 40 or 50 Hasidic groups, only one is quite open and that is the Lubavitchers. All the others are much more closed and try hard to keep things as much as they were in Eastern Europe.
CM: Have you, Menashe, seen any change in your community as a result of family or friends seeing the film?
ML: People haven’t really seen it yet since it’s not released. But the Hasidic guy who convinced me to do the film said he thought that people would really appreciate it once they did and not be so critical. They will see that it’s a positive film in many ways and can be used to good ends. For those who don’t want to watch movies, they don’t have to go to see it. We’re not selling it in Judaica stores, we’re putting it in the local theater, so it’s not like we’re forcing it in anyone’s face. Hopefully they won’t criticize us for doing so.
CM: Are all the actors from the Skver community?
ML: No, everybody’s different. Satmar, Bratislaver…
JW: Borough Park has every type of Hasidic group, so it’s very authentic for us to have Satmars, Skvers, Bobovers and Vizhnitzers, all in one place.
ML: Even in the secular world people can be closed. In the Hasidic world today there is enough mixing of subcultures – Skver, Satmar, and even Yemenis and Sefardis – to reinforce what we’ve done here. As one of the first Yiddish films in seventy years, it’s not just for scholars, but for everyone.