On a crowded Brooklyn street, an Orthodox Jew adjusts his yarmulke, a tefillin bag under his arm. He speaks on a smartphone and practically struts. The man, as dandified as one can look in a black suit and a white shirt, is a red herring in Menashe. Several other Brooklynites, gray-haired and gray-bearded, with Homburgs and gray payot, walk past Menashe Lustig before he waddles into view, overweight and jacket-less.
In his first feature, Joshua Z. Weinstein prods righteously at the paternalism of Orthodox Jewry while working in the mode of a slacker comedy. The director plays on our indignation as his widower protagonist — Lustig, a Menashe playing a Menashe — loses custody of his son because of a literal interpretation of the Torah that prohibits single men from raising children.
The plot is an often plodding account of Menashe’s failures — as a father, a Jew, a grocery store clerk — jolted by occasional episodes that demonstrate Menashe’s character. Crucially, the critical eye Weinstein applies to fundamentalist religion endears us to his protagonist. In one scene, a teenage girl, out of frame, cries because her rabbi will not let her parents send her to college. In the next, a pious brother-in-law criticizes Menashe for refusing to wear a jacket or a hat, and suddenly the protagonist’s schlubbiness seems like welcome rebellion.
Weinstein’s pedigree is in documentaries, and his scenes often amount to talking, sometimes screaming — usually bearded — heads in rooms, shot with a handheld camera. In one of the more visually adventurous sequences, lens moving in and out of focus, Weinstein films the Burning of the Chametz, a pre-Passover tradition in which Orthodox Jews publicly set fire to the leavened bread in their cupboards and stores. Immediately after, Menashe spills several cases of gefilte fish on the street and receives a vindictive scolding from his boss for wasting expensive food. Weinstein’s juxtapositions are as clever a means of skewering religious hypocrisy as his deadpan sense of humor (Menashe’s rabbi, encouraging him to get married: “The Talmud says three things bring a man peace: a nice wife, a nice house and nice dishes”). But he manages to dole out empathy to everyone including Menashe’s rabbi, his brother-in-law and the other strict and frum Haredim.
Weinstein’s methods are not new, and his execution is uneven. Recent films by Cristian Mungiu and Asghar Farhadi, both of whom chronicle interpersonal morality in conservative societies, are more sinuously plotted and more discerning in the moments of humanity they depict. But Weinstein, who is neither a member of a Haredi community nor a speaker of Yiddish (on set, he used a translator) has created a work of interest partially because he is aware of his own distance from his subject matter. He imbues the wordless Burning of the Chametz scene with the confusion of someone who happens upon a fire on a city street. He never explains that the packages his characters set ablaze contain food, and the first images that orient us are the NYPD gates cordoning the burn piles.
Weinstein crafts his narrative around the varying familiarity viewers will have with his subject. (As many Haredi families and rabbis prohibit televisions and films, Menashe’s audience, unless in violation of religious rules, will largely consist of cultural voyeurs.) Before another street scene that bookends the film, Menashe removes his white shirt, a jacket hanging on his locker door. Bare-chested, he submerges himself in what appears — at least to a secular gay man like me — to be a bathhouse. A more frum viewer will know that the bathhouse is a mikvah, and what this intimate moment implies about how Menashe has chosen to live his life.