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August 7, 2017 3:53 pm

The Inside Story Behind ‘Menashe’

avatar by Alan Zeitlin

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Hasidic father Menashe and his son Rieven in the film ‘Menashe.’ Photo: Federica Valabrega.

Menashe Lustig stood in the back of a darkened movie theatre in New York City, laughing. Looking at his tzitzit, you might think that he had snuck into the theater to watch a movie without being noticed. In reality, he was the movie’s star.

Lustig is an unlikely person to star in a dramatic film. In fact, the first time that he ever saw a movie in a theatre was when he went to the Sundance Film Festival to watch his own film.

“I never believed it would have happened,” Lustig said. And how did it happen? The film’s director, Joshua Z. Weinstein, saw Lustig playing a gabbai in a commercial.

“I saw a sadness in him,” Weinstein said. “I like actors who are broken.”

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The film — Menashe, which is based on Lustig’s real life — tells the story of a Hasidic man whose wife has died. He then struggles to balance his job with being a good father to his son.

In the film, relatives tell Menashe that in order to be whole, he must get married again. Asked if people are trying to set him up now due to the success of the movie, Lustig says, “They tried.”

Lustig did not ask his rabbi for permission to do the film. Asked if the rabbi objected to his behavior, Lustig gave an answer that would seem to come from Fiddler on The Roof.

“I’m not bothering him, and he’s not bothering me,” Lustig said.

Lustig initially worried that audiences wouldn’t respond to the film. He said that when he first watched the movie he had “a very bad feeling” and was shivering. But he is happy to see that the film has resonated with audiences across the country.

The film takes place largely in Boro Park, and its dialogue is in Yiddish. Athough Weinstein recognized the difficulty of this approach, he said that he bent over backwards to achieve authenticity. Aside from rehearsing scenes in English and then filming them in Yiddish, there were constant consultations to ensure the film’s accuracy.

In one scene, in which Lustig and the actor Yoel Weisshaus argue, controversy erupted as the two debated each other. Weisshaus threatened not to return the next day.

“There was a Talmudic debate for every single line,” Weinstein said, adding that the scene — which should have taken three hours to shoot — took ten

Weinstein also explained that a key to the film’s success was Lustig’s understanding that the film needed a serious tone, and could not be a “borscht-belt” type of humorous-filled movie.

In an interview, Weinstein said that his next film won’t be in Yiddish. “This was way too difficult,” he said. “I don’t need the tsuris of doing another film in Yiddish.”

As for Lustig, he said that his son hasn’t yet seen the film.

“If he asks me, I’ll show him,” Lustig said.

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