The Nature of Faith; The Price of Parenthood
Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who’s trying to hold onto his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski). Menashe, though, isn’t just trying to keep the boy out of the hands of his late wife’s brother, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus); he’s also trying to assert a level of individuality away from the rest of his Orthodox community. He’s been a widower for about a year and isn’t in a hurry to get married again anytime soon. This is the story of a man grappling with the possibility that the Hasidic tradition that requires his son to be raised in a household with both a mother and a father may not fit into the life he wishes to live. He shows his rebelliouness in his refusing to wear the hat and jacket required by his faith, but it is even more felt in that he does not wants to raise Rieven in an environment as loveless as the arranged marriage that led to the boy’s birth.
Director Joshua Z. Weinstein sees that Menashe is also to blame for his own troubles. He gets into arguments with his boss at the local supermarket at which he slaves away, he pleads with his landlord to give him more time to pay rent, and he generally acts in a hapless manner that implies he can barely take care of himself despite his prideful claims to the contrary. Menashe’s struggles are his own flailing attempts to live by himself for the first time in his life and he feels some guilt over his wife’s death, even if he didn’t truly love her.
Basically, Menashe is a man-child and this explains, why he relates to his son so easily. Rieven is also wise beyond his years. He’s able to accept his father’s flaws more easily than anyone else in their community, even after the boy acknowledges that everyone else is right about how his dead mother was so poorly treated by Menashe. We see the father-son relationship in offhand scenes of Menashe teaching Rieven the Torah in a playful manner in a library, and Rieven enjoying ice cream that his father bought him. Their love for each other lets us see that Menashe wants to do right by his son. loving rapport helps to establish the one thing that endears viewers to Menashe, for all his clumsiness: his attempts to do right by his son.
We see a subculture rarely seen on screen and we see it almost completely at face value without any needlessly elaboration upon the customs of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community and there are no heavy theological inquiries. We find the common humanity in the characters, and in the sense that the film inspires of discovering something universal in a culturally specific environment. This makes us think about the story’s tradition-versus-modernity themes.
In one scene Eizik says that Gentiles have a more open attitude toward marriage and family and that broken homes are an extension of broken society. We see the very strong and rigid insularity of the Hasidic community in that line.
Menashe desires to stay in this community for the sake of family and we realize that we have been given a rare look into a relatively unexplored way of life through a complex character whose own struggles—to start over, to improve himself, to do right by others—come to be like our own, regardless of religious faith.
There have been other films about the Hasidic community before but they frequently either over-romanticize the religion treat or see it as strange curiosity to be examined. This is a fresh and clear look at life in the ultra-Orthdox community in Brooklyn. We see what is happening without explanation. Weinstein simply lets us see Menashe as part of the natural fabric of his life. He does not avoid issues such as the mental “pressure” of having to remarry so soon after a spouse’s death or the position of women within the faith. He chooses to keep the father/son relationship up front and using a bit of humor to look at the deeper emotional issues. He also manages to make us feel considerable sympathy for Menashe by showing that juggling personal needs and desires within the framework of a strict religious environment is not easy. Rieven is also a strong character in his own right, as we see him grappling with the loss of one parent and the prospect of losing day-to-day contact with the other alongside the usual childhood frustrations with a dad who is less than perfect.