Menashe

At Myrna Loy

(PG)

Grade: B

“Menashe” is both a warm comedy about a bumbling dad and a thought-provoking exploration of religious obedience.

At its most simplistic level, “Menashe” brings to life the adoption commercial: “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent. There are lots of teens who would love to put up with you.”

Except this film is not about adoption, but about a quite imperfect widower who struggles to be a loving parent to his son, now that mom is gone. He’s bumbling his way through life and through fatherhood, but his boy loves him dearly, flaws and all – as do we.

Menashe is a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who works as a grocery store clerk while raising his young boy. He’s always late for work and can botch the preparation of even the most primitive of meals.

A low budget film, “Menashe” was filmed quietly, somewhat secretly, within the Hasidim community of Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Borough Park district, which prefers privacy to publicity. By casting ordinary people, not actors, director/writer Menashe Lustig gave us a very authentic view of the daily lives of this spiritual community, including a snapshot of its religious beliefs and traditions.

The biggest gift of all? We are given an un-romanticized glimpse into the daily lives of devout believers. The script draws honestly on Menashe’s own life.

The story revolves around one Hasidic “law/tradition” that requires that a single father to either find a wife or allow his child to be raised in two-parent family.

The boy’s uncle – brother to the mother who died – insists that Menashe honor that tradition, which Menashe does, with great sadness. Menashe dreams of regaining custody, but his unstable life does not make remarriage likely.

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Menashe’s decision to sacrifice life with his son to honor his faith seems a descendant of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. A principled life inevitably presents us with hard choices asking us to adhere to our belief, despite the sacrifice that such obedience might entail. We can argue about whether that religious “rule” is fair or just, but it’s clear Menashe tries to abide by his faith in matters large and small.

The story follows a special week when a rabbi allows Menashe to bring his son home to plan a memorial service to honor the memory of his deceased wife. Menashe decides he will hold the meal and service in his small apartment.

Menashe’s friends try to talk him out of that plan, but he insists.

And, as feared, the worst happens when smoke pours from the oven, reducing visibility to the length of a couch. Some of the guests want to leave, but the compassionate rabbi teaches everyone a lesson by celebrating the meal as “fit for a king” and inviting/imploring everyone to shut up and eat up.

“Menashe” shows its low budget in many ways, and has no linear plotline to pull us along. But the honest portrayal of a person of faith and his deep love for his son is a Myrna meal to savor.

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