THE UNORTHODOX – movie review

THE UNORTHODOX
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eliran Malka
Screenwriter: Eliran Malka
Cast: Shuli Rand, Yaacov Cohen, Yoav Levi, Golan Azulai, Shifi Aloni, Or Lumbrozo
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/25/19
Opens: June 4, 2019 at JCC in Manhattan

A scene from the movie ‘The Unorthodox’

 

The old saying is that you put two Jews in a room discussing anything under the sun and they will not only disagree but will come up with three diverse positions. This is true to some extent among diaspora Jews in the U.S., people of the book who love endless discussions to such an extent that many Gentiles do not understand the verbal mayhem. And it is surely true of Jews living in Israel, who may have seemed unified when the nation was founded in 1948 with its iconic, socialist members of kibbutzim (collective farms), but has since fractured into more political parties than you can count on your fingers, with maybe your toes thrown in. “The Unorthodox” may seem at first look like a deadly serious film about ethnic discrimination but is filled with comic outbursts and undertones and includes many cartoonish figures—not excluding rabbis.

Still, it’s regrettable that Israelis fell into the kind of discrimination that pit those of European background, some of whom migrated to the land while others (Sabras) were born there, against those known as Mizrahis and Sephardim—generally of darker skin including those thrown out of their birth lands including Iran, Dagestan, Syria, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. The differences are not only in skin color, though you might scarcely tell by looking who is of European stock and who is Middle Eastern, but in culture, involving music, clothing, food and the like.

Because of this discrimination, one fellow, Yaakov Cohen (Shuli Rand), partly comic and otherwise passionate, becomes radicalized when his daughter is suspended from high school twice within two weeks and then told by the headmistress that she “does not fit in.” Turns out that she is Sephardic attending a school filled with Ashkenazi Jews, and is dropped from the register though she is neither a discipline problem nor a bad student. Forced to accept the decision, Yaakov, heretofore apolitical, realizes that the Sephardic and Mizrahi communities in Jerusalem can show power only by forming a party, the Sephardi Torah Guardians, or Shas (an actual party of Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern extraction actually founded in 1984). Nobody but he thinks the organization will get anywhere, but in running for the City Council, Yaakov must get the endorsement of at least one rabbi, preferably the head rabbi of the city.

Given the overlong presidential campaigns here in the U.S., each election considered by the media “the most important ever,” you may not be in the mood for another culture’s campaigning, but you will be drawn into writer-director Eliran Malka’s debut feature movie. Eliran Malka presents “The Unorthodox” soon after helming his groundbreaking TV show Shababnikim, an irreverent look at the shenanigans of four ultra-Orthodox fellows studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva. Malka, intent on showing ultra-Orthodox as people misrepresented by the media as a closed society, highlights each of the major personalities with his or her own quirks, whether they be from the movie’s idealistic anchor played by Shuli Rand, the local rabbi actually named Yaacov Cohen, who was born in Morocco, or the henchmen who try to absorb the Shas founders into their own party thereby hoping to dissolve the divisions. But like political parties everywhere, Shas began with admirable ideals when Shuli Rand’s character ran for the Jerusalem City Council, then rubbed up against the daily corruptions of the game, wherein at least five Shas members of the Knesset were busted for fraud, forgery, and conspiracy to commit crimes.

Notwithstanding the writer-director’s championing of the party through his film, today Shas has moved to the far right, against any cutback in activities settling the West Bank. At least the party as we see its members in action in “The Unorthodox” summons us to cheer their ideals, while knowing that somehow Yaacov, its founding member, will become not only corrupted but thrown under the bus by his fellow party members.

“The Unorthodox” was selected to screen at the Israel Film Festival.

99 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B

FIG TREE – movie review

FIG TREE
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian
Screenwriter: Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian
Cast: Betalehem Asmamawe, Rodas Gizaw, Weyenshiet Belachew, Yohannes Musa, Mitiku Haylu, Mareta Getachew, Tilahune Asagere
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/27/19
Opens: June 5, 2019 at JCC in Manhattan

No sooner has the film advanced past the opening credits when someone in a hell-hole of a town outside Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa says, “Everyone wants to be Jewish.” That’s something you don’t hear every day, but it was probably quoted in one way or another in the Soviet Union when in 1989 a record number of that country’s Jews left for Israel and the United States. Some Russian Christians, not particularly pleased with the travel limitations of their Communist government, discovered that by declaring themselves to be Jews they can not only be let out but can be taken in and treated well by the Jewish state. A situation in presented itself in Ethiopia during its long civil war between a Communist government that took power after a coup ousting Haile Selassie and various guerrilla groups. Both sides in in 1989 were kidnapping men between the ages of 15 and 30, conscripting them into their armed divisions. In that background Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe), a feisty 16-year-old staying with her weaver grandmother (Weyenshiet Belachew), both lives for the moment, giving herself over to horseplay with her long-term boyfriend Eli (Yohanes Muse), and looking forward to spending her life with both her grandmother and Eli in Israel once the fluctuating flight schedules allow them to finalize their plans.

Two big questions arise. There are risks that Eli faces when military units without advance warning could snatch the young man up and make life unbearable, which is at least the perception of a young woman like Mina. The other is that like her grandmother and like her mother who is already in Israel, Mina is Jewish. However Eli, adopted into Mina’s family, is Christian. Mina fears that once the equivalent of a Mexican coyote who has pocketed money that Eli would be left behind, as Mina is instructed to take flight with her grandmother first.

Time passes, military units occasionally causing anxieties such as by forcing a school’s principal to hand over the list or male students, but a climactic point arrives when Mina and Eli discover a legless soldier (Tilahune Asagere) hanging from a fig tree in a patch of land that Eli uses to hide from the military. They save the man, who takes his time becoming conscious, and we see him as a metaphor for the whole mess that faces the country. The area is wracked by fear to such an extent that we may be surprised at the good will of the two young people when shortly thereafter the soldier crawls away, collapses, and is ignored by passersby.

The bulk of the film is slow-moving and is based partly on the experiences of the writer-director, Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian who left Ethiopia when she was eleven. The languid pace makes the climactic moments, when all tensions burst in an array of frantic activity, all the more riveting. Still, considering the unhurried rhythms that last for the major parts, more exposition in the opening minutes could have better clarified the theme.

In the seventies and eighties Israel gave itself lots of credit, deservedly so, for taking in so many Ethiopians, a surprising decision since—as we learn from Eliran Malka’s film “The Unorthodox”which opens one day before this one at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center—the ethnically European Ashkenazis were not exactly welcoming of their fellow Israelis of Middle Eastern origin. “Fig Tree” does give us the tensions surrounding both the civil war and the desires of Ethiopian Jews to get out of their country leaving everything behind, but should be seen as well for the terrific performance of Betalehem Asmamawe, a non-professional performer in her first role.

Daniel Miller filmed on location in Ethiopia. “Fig Tree” is an entry of the Israel Film Center Festival and played at the Toronto International Film Festival.

93 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

THE SONG OF NAMES – movie review

THE SONG OF NAMES
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: François Girard
Screenwriter: Jeffrey Caine based on a novel by Norman Lebrecht
Cast: Tim Roth, Clive Owen, Catherine McCormack, Jonah Hauer-King, Gerran Howell, Luke Doyle
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 10/29/19
Opens: December 25, 2019

The Song of Names (2019)

It’s not all that unusual for people to disappear. Men run away from their marriages. Women from small towns bolt, fed up with kinder, küche and kirche. Not long ago Deborah Feldman ran away from her Hasidic Jewish family which she considered to be stifling, disappearing into Greenwich Village, washing her laundry in her memoir “Unorthodox.” “The Song of Names” is likewise about a person who disappears, but this fellow runs not away from the rigidities of religion but more deeply into it. The overriding concept is this: why would a person vanish for thirty-five years, abandoning the foster brother who grew to love him and the foster father who financed and encouraged him and who lost so much money because of the young man’s evaporation?

Through Jeffrey Caine’s adaptation of a novel by Norman Lebrecht by the same name, director François Girard constructs a movie about music and betrayal, building on his own love of music as shown through his “Thirty Short Films About Glenn Gould,” which are vignettes about the pianist’s life, ‘The Red Violin” about the passion created by the instrument over centuries, and the TV episode “Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach.” While “The Song of Names” is clearly about music, Girard is more interested in the emotional bond between two young men who had grown to love each other, and the search by one to find his foster brother who had ruined the life and finances of a British music publisher who had invited him into his home, bought a 284-year-old violin, and died two months after the disastrous disappearance.

This is one of those films that come forth as convoluted given the editor’s frequent changes of eras. The betrayer, Dovid, is played by Luke Doyle aged 9, by Gerran Howell ages 17-21, and thirty-five years later by Clive Owen acting out of his comfort zone as a middle-aged ultra-Orthodox Jew. His foster brother Martin is played by Misha Handley aged 9, by Jonah Hauer-King ages 17-23, and thirty-five years later by Tim Roth. The opening scenes are the most realistic and credible before the story heads off into a not-easily-believed fantasy zone.

Dovid’s father sent his violin prodigy to London to live with a family that includes Martin, who is about the same age and is envious of his new foster-brother’s gifts. Though Martin and Martin’s dad are Christian, the British household honors all Jewish traditions for their new guest, even abandoning their love of breakfast bacon. After a bout of sibling rivalry, the two youths become great friends. When Martin’s father invests in a concert expected to start Dovid’s career as a musician, Dovid disappears completely, leaving the audience at the refund booth and the underwriter heavily in debt. When Martin, now in his mid-fifties, finally tracks Dovid down, he finds out for the first time what happened to his friend. He discovers—as do we in the audience—wholly dubious circumstances of the vanishing act.

In the midst of the credulity-straining tale are some moving scenes. During the German bombing of London, as Dovid takes refuse in the neighborhood air-raid shelter (impressively decked out with scores of sandbags), Dovid pulls out his violin, setting up a competition with a slightly older violinist as though executing a theme and a fugue. On an even more emotional level, the middle-aged Dovid discovers what happened to his parents who had stayed in Poland too late to avoid the Holocaust. A rabbi (Kamil Lemieszewski), doubling as a cantor, sings a song of names whereby the melody makes it easier for him to recall the names of victims who died at Treblinka. Nor can the film be faulted for pulling at the tear ducts at a sight in Treblinka death camp, where the principals walk past stones that memorialize the murdered Jews.

Should we forgive Dovid for bankrupting Martin’s family given his rare talent with the strings, or do we find that difficult given also that Martin has spent his a lifetime fretting about Dovid’s disappearance, heading off from London, traipsing around Poland and New York to solve the puzzle? The movie suffers from the frequent editing to cover the three stages of life and could be served better by a chronological approach. Montréal and Budpest stand in for New York and Warsaw.

113 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – C+

#FEMALE PLEASURE – movie review

#FEMALE PLEASURE

Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Barbara Miller
Screenwriter: Barbara Miller
Cast: Deborah Feldman, Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Doris Wagner, Yithika Yadav
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/23/19
Opens: October 18, 2019

#Female Pleasure (2018)

During the Age of Aquarius in America, Joan Baez would sing “Hard is the fortune of all womankind/ She’s always controlled, she’s always confined/ Controlled by her parents until she’s a wife/ A slave to her husband for the rest of her life.” You might not think that in free America—as compared, for example with Saudi Arabia—that women have it so bad, but of course there’s room even in our country before we can declare the two sexes absolutely equal. Things are worse, then, in some parts of the world, and Barbara Miller, who wrote and directs “#Female Pleasure,” takes us around the globe from Brooklyn to Japan to India and to the UK and to Italy, where women activists are challenging the rules enforced upon them by religion or by culture. You come away with the impression that Karl Marx was right in saying that religion was invented by men to keep women down–though he could add repressive cultures in general.

The Swiss director hones in on five women, capturing their legitimate beefs through both the interview format and through observing them living their lives. In one case she indicts entire societies in discussing the evil practice of FGM, or female genital mutilation, in which babies, really, five-year-old girls, are held down and have their clitoris cut out so that they cannot feel sexual pleasure. Strangely, though, the women do not explain why this is done. Presumably this is to prevent women from straying from their husbands. In other cases, religion, which of course is part of a culture, is indicted, interpreted by men to pronounce themselves superior to women and to exploit them for their own satisfaction.

The woman whose story meant the most for me was Deborah Feldman, as I had read her book “Unorthodox,” there describing her view of the Hasidic religious sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She was one of the few who actually left, taking off on her own, living in Greenwich Village, her book describing her dismal view of the highly Orthodox people who do not allow women to choose their mates. (I think she did a disservice on those pages in which she tells all, describing the sexual practices of her ex-husband which must have humiliated him.) Feldman is seen driving her son inside the Hasidic community, asking him whether she should return to the fold and getting the obvious answer from the young man, “Let’s get out.” And that’s a male talking! We see films of Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, where the residents post large signs about respecting the local culture. Women are told to dress modestly—long sleeve shirts, skirts down about her ankles, though what Feldman could have added is that tourists who walk through the community with outfits that the residents consider immodest are spat upon, the women addressed as whores.

At least nobody in the Hasidic culture favors FGM. The bizarre custom of cutting a woman’s genitals when she is but a small child occurs largely in North Africa—Egypt, Somalia, for example, but also in Kenya. We hear from Leyla Hussein, who had the procedure forced on her. Like Feldman, she ultimately escaped the repressiveness by moving to the UK. At the very least she has convinced women in the expate Somali community to the anti-FGM cause, and when she visited the Masai in Kenya, learning that these women too had been mutilated, she gets their pledge not to do the same to their own daughters. As for the view that, hey, men, too are mutilated by some cultures by having their foreskins removed, she counters that the equivalent would be to have their entire penises removed.

Rokudenashiko, the nickname of manga artist Megumi Igarashi which means “good for nothing,” put vaginas in her cartoons for which she was arrested, tried, and acquitted of that charge, but she was convicted for making 3D images of the vagina, creating necklaces, iPhone cases and even a kayak using her own vulva as the design.

Miller also gives time to Doris Wagner, a German nun who claims that she was raped more than once by a priest, though we wonder why she would remain in the convent after a single instance, particularly since her charge was not taken seriously. She had written to Pope Francis, receiving no response, and is now a free woman who loves pop songs which, unlike what she heard in the convent deals with real human emotions.

Vithika Yadav, a feminist activist in India, makes us aware that the government in India appears not to take rape seriously, thinking, perhaps, that “Boys will be boys.” A street demonstration cast with men sympathetic to her cause reenacts the humiliation that women go through.

Some might say that the film is “all over the place,” since it deals with a variety of themes from genital mutilation to arranged marriage, but all falls under the umbrella of ways that women are not valued as much as are men, looked upon—except by me and you—as nothing more than baby-making machines whose pleasure is considered unimportant by men. If you are “woke,” i.e. socially aware, you know and rejects the attitude of male supremacy unearthed by this fascinating trip around the globe. Even so, you will be attentive to the sharp visuals in Jiro Akiba, Gabriela Betschart and Anne Misselwitz’s photography.

The film garnered awards and nominations at film festivals in Locarno, Leipzig, Austria and Thessalonika.

101 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – A-

93QUEEN – movie review

93QUEEN

Hot Docs
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Paula Eiselt
Screenwriter:  Paula Eiselt
Cast:  Ruchie Freier
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC
Opens: July 25, 2018
93Queen
Secular people and, in fact, most Jews, will agree that women who are part of the Hasidic community in Brooklyn and Williamsburg and throughout the world are in some ways not treated as equals of men.  It’s true, as Hasidic men might admit, that women are the bosses in the home, bringing up the kids, baking challah, roasting chicken and the like.  But in the synagogue men and women sit separately, the women in the back, usually in the balcony.  Hasidic women are not challenging the synagogue rituals, but some are refusing to buckle under to the men at least in some ways.  One way, followed by a tiny fraction of the community, might be to bolt altogether like Deborah Feldman, who quit the sect, got divorced, and wrote the book “Unorthodox,” which exposed some of her dirty laundry about her husband in public.  Rachel “Ruchie” Freirer, on the other hand, remains a solid citizen and ultra-Orthodox like husband and six children, but she works from within.  Hasidic men believe that running the Hatzolah, or emergency medical team with ambulances to rush to emergencies among Hasidim, do not admit women to the force, even though some might admit that women patients would be more comfortable taken care of by their own gender.

 

Ms. Freier, an attractive, smartly attired woman, is unusual in that she is a lawyer, quite a rare profession for a woman in her community. She is married to a man who is a real estate agent, sharing a roomy house in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, a home that frequently plays host to an assemblage of guests, mostly women who share her progressive views.

Mrs. Freier seems not to have a moment to deal with clients in Paula Eiselt’s documentary.  When she is not baking challah from scratch, she is co-founding the first women’s ambulance system, known as Ezras Nashim (Women for women).  Criticized by Hasidic men trolling her in social media, she is bashed for her ambition as “not modest, challenging the Torah” as some say.  It doesn’t help her cause that the rabbis refuse to endorse the organization, perhaps citing that the Hatzolah is already the world’s largest volunteer ambulance core, but she has “God’s endorsement,” and that’s all that counts with her.

The documentary takes us from the planning stage, where she delivers several talks to groups of women who are on her side, and is so persistent that the New York City Fire Department officially assigns her EMT the code “93Queen.”  Freier parlays that victory into a political race for New York City Civil Court judge.  It would be a spoiler to disclose the results of that election, but rest assured that the men, many of whom say it’s not modest for a woman to be a judge, will vote.  (Hasidim vote almost unanimously, often taking the rabbi’s endorsement as the will of the community.)

Expect the audience for this film to be divided.  Even some secular men want to keep women in their place, and surely Hasidic men would vote for her Hasidic male opponent.  So what chance does she have?  This is Paula Eiselt’s freshman feature film, though she is known for an eleven-minute short, “Priscilla,” about a mother who insists that her shy daughter get a nose job.  I think we can be certain that Ms. Eiselt, like the hero of this doc, will soldier on to produce more films with even better technical accoutrements.

Unrated.  90 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

DISOBEDIENCE – movie reveiw

DISOBEDIENCE

Bleecker Street
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Screenwriter: Sebastián Lelio, Rebecca Lenkiewicz Based on the novel by Naomi Alderman
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 4/17/18
Opens: April 27, 2018

Sociologists like Robert Putnam’s whose book “Bowling Alone” deals with the deterioration of community life in America have their theories seconded just this month of April by Jonah Goldberg of National Review magazine and David Brooks of the New York Times. They assert that our society has become atomized: that with the proliferation of TV channels, the indulging of hundreds of Facebook friends whom you may never even see and speak with in person, leave us lonely and depressed. During the hippie days of the late sixties and early seventies some people tried a different way of live in communes as did the utopian communities in the 19th century. If you want to see genuine community life today, however, as a contrast to current theories, you could find it among Hasidic Jews and in many cases ultra-Orthodox Jews, who live in insular societies, teach fellow Jews or serve as merchants to their own religious folks, and rarely mix in the outside world. If this sounds claustrophobic to you, remember that these spiritual and highly religious people have with few exceptions maintained their insularity and so far as what outside societies can see they are happy. They are not atomized.

But what about the few renegades who cannot abide by such restricted lives? Think of Deborah Feldman whose book “Unorthodox: the Scandalous Rejection of Hasidic Roots,” led to an enraged response among the people she left when she moved to New York’s Greenwich Village. Now the Orthodox community we find in Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s film probably seems to us in the audience to be not only closely knit but pretty pleased with the way they live. One clue to their well being is that only one woman chooses to break out of the London neighborhood and move to New York to pursue a career as a hip photographer . She’s still Jewish, but she’s not about ever to return to her roots where she would be expected to marry whether the relationship is loveless or not and to have sex every Friday night among other rituals, whether she was in the mood of not.

In “Disobedience,” we are given a close examination of three people who grew up as friends but whose lives are changed probably forever when one woman leaves the nest and is shunned by others in the congregations. As a bonus, we also see services in the synagogue, listening to the harmonic tones of a choir and the wisdom of two sermons. As a special treat we are in the presence of
three special performers, also directed with a crescendo of power that takes us from quie t talks around the Sabbath table to a verbal explosion that show how the repressions built up for months and years are sudden let out.

After Rav Kruschka, the rabbi of a London ultra-Orthodox congregation drops dead while giving a sermon about our fundamental choice to live like the angels or like the beasts, his daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz), who had left the congregation and her immediate family some time back to pursue a secular career in New York, returns for the funeral. Some, like her childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) are not pleased to see her and greet her with a mechanical “I hope you have a long life.” On the other hand, Dovid’s wife Esti (Rachel McAdams) is overjoyed. During the time that Ronit stays in the home of Dovid and Esti, the sexual attraction between her and Esti is revived, hinting that Ronit may have been pressured out of the community when some kissing between the two women was discovered. Since you can’t easily defeat nature, the two carry on but are caught kissing once again by neighbors (imagine if they witnessed an entire, graphic lovemaking scene between the two women)! By contrast Esti, whose sexual scene with her husband involves no foreplay, the two covered by a blanket. Esti must choose to remain in her marriage, and in effect whether to remain at all with the greater family of religious men and women.

The film is shown without flashbacks but rather with a conventional style that belies the unconventional manner of the two women. As a retired teacher, I was particularly impressed with the lovely classes taught by both Esti in a religious school and Dovit, around a table where sections of the bible are interpreted.

The conclusion is both heartbreaking and wonderful, a testament to the solid performances of all three principals, with scenes from the choir at the religious service so enchanting that Gentiles in the audience may wish to convert.

With this film, director Lelio’s place among the great Latin-American directors is assured, a man whose “A Fantastic Woman,” dealing with a transgender waitress who works as a night-club singer, confirms his predilection for films with renegades.

Rated R. 114 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

MENASHE – movie review

MENASHE

A24
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: A-
Director:  Joshua Z. Weinstein
Written by: Joshua Z. Weinstein, Alex Lipschulz, Musa Syeed
Cast: Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshau, Meyer Schwartz
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/24/17
Opens: July 28, 2017
click for larger (if applicable)
When Rabbi Menachem Schneerson died in 1994, people asked me whether I had gone to his funeral.  Schneerson, whom some in his Hasidic sect believed to be the Messiah, was responsible for reviving the Chabad Lubavitch movement and is considered to be one of the 20th century’s great thinkers.  But I have more in common with the Pope than with Rebbe Schneerson, because Jews are far from a monolithic tribe.  If you want to know some of the differences among Jews, consider this dialogue:

Student: I heard that Jews are a diverse people.  What are their differences?
Teacher:  Take weddings for example.  In an orthodox wedding, the mother is pregnant.  In a conservative wedding, the bride is pregnant.  In a Reform wedding, the rabbi is pregnant.

But even among orthodox Jews, there are Hasidim, the folks who wear black coats, large hats, and significant beards and those who are not at all Hasidic.  Joshua Z. Weinstein’s film “Menasche,” focuses on the Hasidic community of Borough Park, Brooklyn, people who are generally insular, a difficult society for outsiders to penetrate.  Weinstein employs some secretive measures in filming his narrative, using mostly non-professional actors who are part of the community with a title character who is a web comedian.  And Weinstein himself is a secular Jew who did not know Yiddish, who needed someone to translate the script that he wrote with Alex Lipschulz and Musa Syeed.   Moreover many of the people he interviewed for the cast had never seen a movie!  This is one of the few films spoken entirely in Yiddish during the past seventy years.  As if this is not all that makes “Menashe” a go-to film for people who want to learn more about the sect, the performances come across as haimish (homey), warm, familial, and without condescension—though mixed in with the soulfulness are ample grounds for criticism of the Hasidic customs.

Thematically, the title character is faced with a situation that places his own views in conflict with those of his people.  Menashe (Menashe Lustig) has an adorable and playful son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) of about the age of ten who would like to live with his father, but is compelled to follow the rules of the community and its rabbi.  Because Menashe’s wife Lea had died months earlier, his brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) has taken in the boy, since the rabbi ruled that a youngster should not be raised in a household without a mother.  And Menashe is not eager to take just anyone the matchmaker suggests, though he is reminded that the Torah, i.e. Genesis 2:18,  states that “man should not be alone, so I have created a companion.”  He works in a mundane job in a kosher supermarket, owes people money, is dissed often by his boss.  Yet the rabbi rules that during the week before a memorial dinner for Lea, Menashe can take the boy under his roof.

Menashe is determined to prove that he has the capacity to be independent and keep the child he loves in his own apartment.  While we in the theater audience await with bated breath the outcome of Menashe’s project, we enjoy a fly-on-the-wall look at the customs of this ultra-orthodox sect in Brooklyn’s borough park, one of the largest communities of Hasidim outside Israel.  There is much to be said for their insularity.  The whole neighborhood looks like one family, a happy one with the usual problems, people who can be counted on to help their fellow “members of the tribe.”  While people who are not Hasidic or even Jewish might think these bearded folks in their long black coats are regularly preparing to go to funerals, the reality is there is much joy among them.  In one scene they sing, pound the table, and drink too much wine while celebrating.   We may have diverse views on Menashe’s brother-in-law, some thinking of him as pushing dad out of the picture, even out of the polite community while others consider him as one who can offer the boy more, both materially and with the stability of regular family life.

“Menashe,” is loosely based on the title figure’s own experiences, a penetrating look at this community, many of whom had never seen a movie (their smart-phones have blocked Internet access).  Director Weinstein evokes terrific ensemble performances from the mostly amateur actors, giving the audience the chance to cheer Menashe on.  Will his kugel (noodle pudding) be acceptable to the invited guests at the memorial dinner?  Will he remain stubbornly independent and refuse to take a wife?  Do we want him to be independent, or do we hope that he will be among the very few who have left the Hasidic community completely, as did Deborah Feldman, who wrote “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots” and whose tone is critical of everything the community stands for?  The conclusion is open-ended: this is no typical Hollywood ending where loose ends are tied.  But we know that Menashe is going to do everything he can to win back the favor of brother-in-law, supermarket boss, rabbi and others, and we inevitably root for his renaissance.

Unrated.  81 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
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