I Had High Hopes For “Menashe,” But Left The Film Disappointed

Several months ago, I started seeing promos for Menashe, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017. I was really impressed. There have been only a few movies over the years which successfully depict the Hasidic world with nuance and depth and have gotten critical acclaim (Ushpizin, Fill The Void and The Wedding Plan). Menashe seemed to be on par with these films. I loved that the movie was all in Yiddish, was filmed in Borough Park, and used actual members of the Hasidic community. Even the short previews exuded an authenticity and charm. I was excited to be invited to its premiere in New York City last month and anxiously awaited seeing it.

The cinematography is beautiful, gritty, and artistic. The main character, Menashe, is a nebbish who seems to get everything wrong. He has lost custody of his only child – his son – since his wife’s passing as it’s apparently not considered proper in his Hasidic community for a single father to raise a child alone. This is something I had never heard of before. I didn’t realize at the time, but after the preview I found out that the movie is loosely based on the real Menashe’s life. I have been told that film director, Joshua Z. Weinstein, though not part of the community himself, worked hard to try to get this film right. Menashe spends the movie trying to get his son back and plan a memorial for his late wife. Being that he’s a nebbish, he is not terribly successful at anything he tries.

I spent the movie waiting for a payoff, waiting for a kernel of wisdom, a nugget of inspiration that would leave me with some appreciation of this world that is not mine. That moment never came and the one hopeful piece of information that the viewer holds onto for most of the movie turns out to be a lie. When the lie was revealed, I felt sucker punched. There were no redeeming qualities to this world.

Now, for the record, I didn’t go into the movie expecting to be swept away by Hasidus. The purpose of the film was not kiruv! I was expecting to see warts and warts there were. And honestly, the success of the aforementioned films: Ushpizin, Fill The Void and The Wedding Plan all showed shortcomings, which I believe made the inspiring parts more believable. While Menashe was a vast improvement over the “Law and Order” Hasidim, it still left me disappointed.

I have two thoughts on why the film failed for me. Firstly, the other films were written by Hasidim themselves. I believe that they were able to capture some of the beauty that attracted them to their lifestyle in the first place, and for the viewer it was a rewarding experience to see the beauty as the filmmakers saw it. Even though Weinstein worked hard to portray this community accurately, my sense is that there is nothing admirable he sees in it. And if he doesn’t see if for himself, how can he show it to us?

The second reason I believe the film failed is that because real life does not always make for good fiction. Some lives are just really difficult and unpleasant and there’s not much to do about it, but in the form of a movie, they’re too depressing. So if a filmmaker is going to use a real life story to make a movie, the story still needs to leave the viewer not feeling totally down in the dumps. There needs to be some fictional element added for the sake of good story telling so we get some sort of payoff by the end.

I am happy that non-Hasidic Jews are working harder to make authentic films about the Hasidic world, but for whoever does this next, I hope that he will work with someone who sees the beauty himself, so the audience will get a glimpse of it too.

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  • Avatar photo Nancy Dobkins says on July 29, 2017

    I have to vehemently disagree with your disappointment because I believe that great films in no way owe us a pat and uplifting ending. And I would also disagree that the ending of this film is depressing. I believe that the ending is ambiguous and leaves you hopeful that Menashe is trying, and may in fact be able to regain his son.

    I have now asked everyone I know who saw the film, and not a single person knows what you’re talking about when you say you were “sucker punched”. What moment in the film are you even referring to?

    Lastly, you make it sound like Hasidism is something that people gravitate to or choose, as opposed to understanding that this is a world people are born into. As the audience we get a wonderful glimpse into that world, and the filmmakers did this without judgment…. and did it extremely effectively.

    Of course not every film is for everyone, biut I hope that others will see this film even after your comments. They can judge for themselves if you “got it” or missed the mark.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on July 29, 2017

      Thanks for your comment, Nancy. I agree that films don’t owe us happy endings. I wasn’t looking for a happy ending. To clarify – I was looking for a single redeeming quality of his world. Someone who showed exceptional kindness, some piece of wisdom he might hold onto. The best people in his world were not cruel to him. He had several cruel people in his world. The sucker punch moment was the English conversation with the workers where he told them about his wife.

      The film makers did give us a nice and authentic look into the Hasidic world but they showed no redeeming qualities to it. Again – I wasn’t looking for a propaganda film to convince the viewer to want to be Hasidic. I don’t want to be Hasidic. And even though I don’t, I know there is beauty in their world. I saw none of it in the film. For me, it was utterly depressing.

    • Avatar photo BJ says on August 12, 2019

      Also worth noting is that the filmmakers of Ushpizin, Fill the Void, and The Wedding Plan – Shuli Rand and Rama Burshtein respectively – were in fact NOT born into the Chassidic word (far from it!). There are actually plenty of people who join the Chassidic community from the “outside,” and I have met quite a few. Belz even has a yeshiva for people who are new to Orthodoxy and are drawn to a Chassidic way of life. An example of someone who has joined Belz after becoming Orthodox (following a completely secular lifestyle) is Rabbi Avichai Cohen. Point is, the “closed Chassidic secret club world” isn’t that closed or secret after all.

  • Avatar photo Chaya Perel Konig says on July 30, 2017

    You are under the assumption that there are redeeming qualities in chasidism. I am confused as to why I would think that. Should Lev tahor put out a similar movie, would u look for redeeming qualities In their community as well?

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on July 30, 2017

      Thanks for your comment, Chaya. Look – I’m not Hasidic. I wouldn’t want to be Hasidic. And, due to Project Makom, I have heard of some horrifying things going on in the Hasidic world. HOWEVER – I have Hasidic friends who are happy, who find their lifestyle meaningful, who make their own choices and who get a lot out of the Torah they learn and the warmth in their communities. So while it’s not for me and while there are certainly real, serious problems, I know there are redeeming qualities. Lev Tahor is literally a cult. My Hasidic friends are not living in a cult.

      • Avatar photo Chaya Perel Konig says on August 3, 2017

        Possibly. However, the film is about the multitudes of chasidism who are living in a cult. Though you’re friends may not experience it as such, many do…

        • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on August 3, 2017

          I understand that there is a lot of pain in the Hasidic world, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a glimpse of a piece of deep, meaningful Torah thrown in, or a person in the community who exhibits an abnormal amount of chesed. You could have those things ALONG with the pain and strict lifestyle and honestly, that would be a truer depiction of the world. Also – if the film was really supposed to be about a cultish and awful world, it was marketed as charming and whimsical and I felt lied to in the previews about what I was actually going to see.

  • Avatar photo Beth Jacobs says on November 9, 2017

    Menashe isn’t a “nebbish,” he’s a “nebach.” 🙂 (nebbish means “nerdy” and it’s used in the same way – saying that someone is “a nerdy” isn’t grammatically correct, and neither is saying that someone is a “nebbish.” A nebach, on the other hand, is someone to be pitied; someone who always seems to get the short end of the stick in life.


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