Starring Nebbishes and Noodges, Yiddish Cinema Makes a Comeback



Menashe” is something else, a rare example of Yiddish neorealism. (Yiddish documentaries and documentary re-enactments were made in Poland before and after World War II.) A maker of documentaries who has worked in India and South Africa, Mr. Weinstein conceived “Menashe,” his first feature film, as a similar, almost ethnographic immersion in a foreign culture.

A vast majority of Hasidic men would never appear in a movie, let alone appear in a scene with a woman who was not a relative. Helped by the music and video producer Daniel Finkelman and other members of the Hasidic world, Mr. Weinstein worked to establish contacts. Still, he did not have much beyond the desire to make a movie until he found Menashe Lustig, whose one-man comic videos, posted on YouTube, Mr. Weinstein compares to Chaplin’s early two-reelers.

“Menashe” not only takes its title from Mr. Lustig but something of his life story, too. He plays a good-hearted, somewhat feckless widower, working as a supermarket clerk and trying to regain custody of his young son — who is being kept by his dead wife’s disapproving family until he remarries. (A Hasidic speed-dating scene is among the movie’s highlights.)

Mr. Weinstein shaped other roles to suit his actors. Menashe’s boss is the owner of a supermarket in Monsey. His rabbi is played by a cabdriver who, Mr. Weinstein said, was “waiting his whole life” for a chance to hold forth. Perhaps the most difficult role, Menashe’s son, went to Ruben Niborski, the child of Israeli Yiddishists and possibly the only member of the cast who had ever been inside a movie theater.


Trailer: ‘Menashe’

A preview of the film.

By A24 on Publish Date July 27, 2017.

Image courtesy of Internet Video Archive.

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“Menashe” embodies Mr. Weinstein’s successful struggle to reconcile religious codes of behavior with filmmaking’s practical necessities. “We were escorted off locations,” he recalled. “Actors would quit.” The script was in English, and so were the rehearsals. The scenes were shot in Yiddish, a strategy that resulted in both brilliant improvisations and considerable disputation, said Mr. Weinstein (who does not speak the language), adding, “There were arguments on set over every single word.”

For financial as well as cultural reasons, Yiddish movies were never easy to make. That Mr. Weinstein spoke no Yiddish is part of the cinematic tradition. Neither Edgar G. Ulmer, the B-movie maker who directed four Yiddish talkies, nor Joseph Seiden, the most prolific producer of Yiddish films, was fluent. “Menashe” has affinities with Yiddish cinema of the 1930s in other ways. By dramatizing the relationship between parents and children, the film explores one of its core themes.

“Menashe” is not the only recent addition to the corpus of Yiddish cinema, which includes silent movies. When I wrote a history of the field, published in 1991, I was able to screen every existing example, most of which had been acquired by the National Center for Jewish Film. But since then, newly discovered films appeared. A Yiddish-language anti-Nazi feature from 1933 turned up amid the nitrate prints owned by the proprietor of a Brooklyn camera store. Fragments of a drama from 1911 surfaced in Russian archives and a filmed version of the Yiddish play “Shulamit” was found in Hungary.

An even more dramatic find is “Broken Barriers,” a 1919 silent hitherto known only through references in old newspaper clippings, given to the center by the great-granddaughter of one of its producers, Leopold Kehlmann. Based on the same Sholem Aleichem stories that the actor-impresario Maurice Schwartz would dramatize 20 years later in the most familiar of American Yiddish talkies, “Tevya,” and that would subsequently provide the basis for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” the movie is currently being restored with help from the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Mr. Weinstein believes that even if Mr. Lustig does not see “Menashe” as suitable for religious Jews, its success has inspired Mr. Lustig to consider making his own films. New documentaries are also in production. Mr. Weinstein may turn his casting sessions into one, although he is not planning a follow-up feature.

“I loved making ‘Menashe’ but I’m done,” he said, offering a Hebrew blessing to anyone who wants to try it again.

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