How an Orthodox Jew Became an Unorthodox Film Star

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Menashe Lustig and Joshua Z Weinstein. Photo: Abraham Riesman

Menashe Lustig sits at a diner table in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, a yarmulke atop his head, tzitzit around his waist, an egg sandwich on his plate. Lustig, like the majority of the people in the establishment and its immediate vicinity, is a member of the strictly religious Hasidic sect of Orthodox Judaism. But there’s a key difference between him and many of his fellow Hasidim: He’s been to a movie theater. Not just that; it was a theater at the Sundance Film Festival. Not just that, either; he was on the screen. And not even just that; the film he was watching bore his first name — and he was its star.

Lustig is happy to be an outlier, even if the very fact of his cinematic debut has caused some controversy in his community. “There’s too much rabbis already; we need to have some actors, too,” the 39-year-old performer says, his sentences viscous with Yiddish accenting and grammar. “How about there should be something different?”

The film, Menashe, is indeed something different. An indie drama distributed by A24, it’s filmed almost entirely in Yiddish — something hardly ever done in the past half century — and it performs the difficult and rarely attempted task of cinematically cracking open New York’s insular Hasidic community to outside observers. It is, in a quiet and unassuming way, a landmark film.

In order to pull that off, director–cinematographer–co-writer Joshua Z Weinstein — a secular Jew — steeped Menashe in authenticity. It’s a loose adaptation of Lustig’s real life: A year after the death of the title character’s wife, we follow him over the course of a few days leading up to a memorial service for her. By order of his rabbi, he’s been separated from his grade-school-aged son (Ruben Niborski) until he can find a new bride, largely because Menashe is so incompetent at parenting. Indeed, he’s incompetent at most everything; he’s as endearing as he is frustrating.

The plot is secondary to the emotional beats and lush visuals, and the resulting film is a vivid and stirring meditation on parenting and community, one that is enormously sympathetic toward Hasidim. It’s a collection of moments: a trip to a deli where you can make your own sandwiches, a chance encounter between father and son on the street, a discussion about why the world of the non-Jewish goyim is such a perverted disaster, a rousing and drunken performance of a lyric-less song over a dinner table, and so on. The cast is comprised almost entirely of real Hasidim, none of them trained actors, and though it doesn’t open theatrically until Friday, the mere fact of its existence has already created problems for Lustig.

“People are like, ‘You stupid? Don’t deal with the outside world. They just want to dig you a grave,’ ” he says, his voice rising with frustration. “It’s not the Jewish people who love this film.” That’s not surprising. The world of hard-core Orthodox Judaism — also known as Haredi Judaism — is one where modernity is a distrusted neighbor. It’s dangerous to generalize, given that Hasidic life is largely lived within subsects led by individual rabbis, all of whom have different opinions and edicts. But, broadly speaking, there’s a belief that too much exposure to the outside world leads to the corruption of religious morals. Recreational internet use is frowned upon and consumption of mainstream entertainment is typically against the rules. It’s almost unthinkable that a Hasid would appear in a festival-friendly flick — let alone one about the insular Hasidic ecosystem. When a Hasidic man named Abraham Karpen attempted to appear in 2008’s New York, I Love You, he was threatened with excommunication and quit the film.

“For most people here, there’s just so many negative possibilities of being on film, being on camera, being recorded,” says Weinstein, who is making his fictional feature debut with Menashe. “The rabbis can put so much pressure on you if that happens. They just don’t want to take that risk. I told every actor, ‘We don’t have to put your name out there. It’s up to you.’ When we went to Sundance, we only released Menashe’s and Ruben’s names, and that was it.”

That’s all part of the learning process for the 34-year-old filmmaker. Weinstein has a long background in documentary-film cinematography, but he’d never interacted with the Hasidic community until recently. In his spare time, he likes wandering New York City with his still camera and, a few years back, came to Orthodox-dense Borough Park to get pictures of festivities related to the Jewish holidays of Lag B’Omer and Purim. He was instantly captivated — and curious.

“When we think about New York City, we think about three things,” Weinstein says with a bit of cheeky hyperbole. “The Empire State Building, yellow taxis, and black-hatted Hasidic Jews. We know about the first two, but we know nothing about the third. Coming [to the neighborhood] on those days just opened a world for me and I knew it was just ripe for a thorough look and understanding. There’s so little representation of them in film or media.” In 2014, Weinstein got in touch with Danny Finkelman, a filmmaker from a somewhat-liberal Hasidic sect who specializes in creating entertainment for use within the Orthodox community; Finkelman got him on the set of a short video sketch he was making with a Hasidic performer named Lipa Schmeltzer.

“And there was Menashe,” Weinstein recalls. Lustig was playing a rabbi’s assistant in the video, and Weinstein couldn’t take his eyes off him. “He had this big, hulking, sad-clown aspect to him that I just fell in love with right away. Lipa had a big schtick; Menashe didn’t need schtick. His body told the whole story.”

Lustig may have been a new find for Weinstein, but he was already an established personality in the tiny world of Hasidic entertainment. There’s an appetite for video content that amuses while still being religiously acceptable, and Menashe produces work within that vein. For a decade, Lustig had been making Yiddish-language short films that he’d publish on YouTube, zero-budget affairs that lovingly lampoon aspects of Hasidic life: the community’s independent EMS service, preparations for Passover, what British-accented Yiddish speakers sound like, etc. (YouTube may be an official no-no for most Hasidic groups, but it’s not a mortal sin and people still use it covertly. Plus, Lustig’s videos can also be found on burned DVDs in Hasidic stores.) With his red sagebrush beard and preternatural calm, he has a natural charisma and never quite turns off the funny — when he enters the diner for our interview, carrying some newspapers in a ratty plastic shopping bag for unexplained reasons, he saunters over to Weinstein, points at the table, and deadpans, “Where am I sleeping?”

Lustig was born in and has spent most of his life in the nearly all-Hasidic town of New Square, north of New York City, and though it may look to an outsider like he fits right in in Borough Park, he assures me that he sticks out a bit. While he’s outdoors, he wears a white shirt with a black vest and a modest yarmulke, rather than the traditional public garb of a long black coat and a large hat. That’s indicative of his relatively permissive approach to Hasidic life. Lustig has been a widower since 2008 and says his lax attitude is getting in the way of finding a wife: “I can’t marry someone who is too strict. I want to be free more. I believe that I’m not practicing everything. I say to people all the time, they should be like me.”

Being like Lustig is a tall order, as his path has been an odd one. He’s spent his life working menial jobs — even now, he works at a grocery story — but in 2006, his career took a surprising turn. A friend decided to shoot some video of Lustig goofing around to a Lipa Schmeltzer song and uploaded it to YouTube. “I didn’t know what the internet is,” Lustig says. “I didn’t know what YouTube is. But quick, it goes so quick, right away it picks up 50,000 views. I said, ‘Wow, it’s a good thing. People like it.’ You want to cheer people up.”

By the time he and Weinstein encountered one another, Lustig was an experienced — if untrained and largely unpaid — performer. Weinstein saw a natural gift in him that day on the set in 2014, but when he told Lustig that he wanted to make a movie about Hasidic life and wanted him to participate in it, Lustig was skeptical. “I told him I didn’t see in reality how it should happen,” Lustig recalls. “I thought I should make a secular movie, I really want it, but I’d never found a guy who really understands me.”

But Weinstein won him over — in no small part because of Finkelman’s urging — and the filmmaker interviewed Lustig for hours upon hours, getting his life story. Weinstein was especially fascinated by the fact that Lustig’s rabbi wouldn’t let him live with his preteen son until Lustig remarried. From that raw material, Weinstein and co-writers Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed drafted a script, most of which was fictional, but which drew on Lustig’s parenting dilemma.

With the help of Finkelman, a go-between par excellence, Weinstein assembled a cast of Hasidic nonactors. The one exception was young Niborski — he was from a non-Hasidic family that, in a rare feat for modern Jewry, spoke Yiddish at home. Like any shoot, it had its challenges, but these were idiosyncratic: Cast members would freak out about the way the movie was exposing their world to the outside, and would leave the production. Some didn’t really understand how movies worked, in general.

“Most of the main actors had never been in a cinema before, had never really seen movies before,” Weinstein says. “They don’t understand that having the camera behind your back can show more emotion about you than having it on your face. When people had a line, they’d be like, ‘Put it in front of my face,’ and I’d be like, ‘Trust me: This is where the camera should be.’” The film took about 30 days to shoot over the course of 18 months — much longer, Weinstein says, than it would have taken in English with professional actors.

Photo: Abraham Riesman

Nevertheless, Weinstein succeeded in getting the finished product into this year’s Sundance and Berlin film festivals. When Lustig watched it at Sundance, it was his first time in a movie theater. Menashe received raves at both. “The real strength of Menashe lies with its ability to be a fly on the wall of a fragile existence that can take any number of unexpected turns,” wrote Eric Kohn of Indiewire; the film “invites audiences into the insular world of Hasidic New York via a character they won’t soon forget, memorably embodied by first-timer Menashe Lustig,” wrote Variety’s Peter Debruge.

What the critics and reporters didn’t know was that the star of the film they enjoyed was going to return to his job at the grocery store after the dust settled. “He got paid a good day rate and is getting back end on the film,” Weinstein says. “But making one indie film a year does not pay you enough to live on for a year.” The film may have a 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes so far, but the glamorous life has not yet arrived for its lead.

Lustig yearns to act more, but he and Weinstein both fear what might happen if he takes the wrong project. They say a TV show approached Lustig about taking a role, but both of them felt it was too exploitative and stereotypical. “I said, ‘Menashe, look: If you do a show, it’d be great for your acting career, but you’d be forever kicked out of the community,’ ” Weinstein says. He and Lustig say Lustig has avoided excommunication so far, but that that’s due to the lack of outright lampooning of Hasidic life in Menashe. “We’re able to tread a line because there’s nuance in this film,” Weinstein says. “Other opportunities won’t be as nuanced. So it’s up to him to find out where that line is gonna be. But right now, he’s firmly staying in the community.”

And Lustig says he’s happy to be there, albeit with one foot in the outside world. He’s not sure what will happen once the film reaches theaters: Will fellow Hasidim watch it? Will they condemn him for it? Will Hollywood start calling? No matter what, he says he’ll keep performing in one way or another. “If somebody asks you, ‘What are you doing? What’s your occupation?’ don’t answer them what you do morning to night,” Lustig says. “Answer them with what you do by night, what you really want to do. Because this is you. I believe, if God gave me a talent to be onscreen, how can it be that it’s forbidden to be on the screen?”

How an Orthodox Jew Became an Unorthodox Film Star