For in a world where family is paramount, Menashe is a widower, and the film introduces him almost a year after his wife, Leah, has died.
Despite pressure from the rabbi, who reminds him that “the Talmud says beginnings are hard,” he is, as an abortive arranged meeting with an eligible woman points out, completely uninterested in remarriage. Which is where things get complicated.
For Menashe is also the father of a pre-teen boy named Rieven (Ruben Niborski), and the cultural norm of this community mandates that children be raised in two-parent families. So Rieven lives, at the rabbi’s insistence, with the family of Leah’s brother, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), a humorless, holier-than-thou prig who has visible contempt for Menashe’s shambling lifestyle.
Nothing in this world is more important to Menashe than his son. He can’t make peace with having to give him up until he remarries, and it breaks his heart not to see the boy more than Eizik’s strict rules allow. But to try and raise Rieven alone in opposition to the community’s norms would risk his son’s expulsion from school and inflict pariah status on him.
Weinstein dealt with the language difference by having his cast rehearse scenes in English before filming in Yiddish, and the poignancy of the central situation never fails to come through. As a slice of ultra-orthodox life, “Menashe” offers an unusual — and unusually sympathetic — look inside a world that is often hidden from view.
Starring Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski. Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein.
Rated PG for thematic elements. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 21 minutes.
Bottom line: An unusual and sympathetic look inside a hidden world