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NY Times, July 29 2017
Starring Nebbishes and Noodges, Yiddish Cinema Makes a Comeback
By J. HOBERMAN
A Yiddish-language feature made with nonprofessional actors on the
streets of Brooklyn? Joshua Z. Weinstein’s “Menashe” is not the product
of a time machine but the belated rebirth of a venerable tradition.
Beginning in 1930 with the hourlong talkie “My Yiddishe Mama” and
continuing for two decades, some 40 Yiddish features and many short
films were made in the United States, Poland and even the Soviet Union —
an era that ended in 1950 with the release of two bargain-basement
musical revues, “Catskill Honeymoon” and “Monticello, Here We Come!”
Their audience was large. Before World War II, many millions spoke the
common language of Eastern European Jews. Since then, the number of
speakers has dropped to several hundred thousand — mostly ultra-Orthodox
Hasidic Jews and a few devoted Yiddishists.
But, as portended by the supernatural prologue of Joel and Ethan Coen’s
comic horror film, “A Serious Man” (2009), the 21st century has brought
Yiddish back to life onscreen — with a difference. Never the audience
for Yiddish films, the Hasidim, who typically shun popular
entertainment, have now become its subject.
In 2005, Yakov and Mendy Kirsh, two ultra-Orthodox brothers from Monsey,
N.Y., made a low-budget thriller, “A Gesheft” (“The Deal”), with an
all-male cast. This was followed in 2011 by Eve Annenberg’s quite
different “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish,” a clever transposition of
Shakespeare featuring a cast of young apostate Hasidim.
“Menashe” is something else, a rare example of Yiddish neorealism.
(Yiddish documentaries and documentary re-enactments were made in Poland
before and after World War II.) A maker of documentaries who has worked
in India and South Africa, Mr. Weinstein conceived “Menashe,” his first
feature film, as a similar, almost ethnographic immersion in a foreign
A vast majority of Hasidic men would never appear in a movie, let alone
appear in a scene with a woman who was not a relative. Helped by the
music and video producer Daniel Finkelman and other members of the
Hasidic world, Mr. Weinstein worked to establish contacts. Still, he did
not have much beyond the desire to make a movie until he found Menashe
Lustig, whose one-man comic videos, posted on YouTube, Mr. Weinstein
compares to Chaplin’s early two-reelers.
“Menashe” not only takes its title from Mr. Lustig but something of his
life story, too. He plays a good-hearted, somewhat feckless widower,
working as a supermarket clerk and trying to regain custody of his young
son — who is being kept by his dead wife’s disapproving family until he
remarries. (A Hasidic speed-dating scene is among the movie’s highlights.)
Mr. Weinstein shaped other roles to suit his actors. Menashe’s boss is
the owner of a supermarket in Monsey. His rabbi is played by a cabdriver
who, Mr. Weinstein said, was “waiting his whole life” for a chance to
hold forth. Perhaps the most difficult role, Menashe’s son, went to
Ruben Niborski, the child of Israeli Yiddishists and possibly the only
member of the cast who had ever been inside a movie theater.
“Menashe” embodies Mr. Weinstein’s successful struggle to reconcile
religious codes of behavior with filmmaking’s practical necessities. “We
were escorted off locations,” he recalled. “Actors would quit.” The
script was in English, and so were the rehearsals. The scenes were shot
in Yiddish, a strategy that resulted in both brilliant improvisations
and considerable disputation, said Mr. Weinstein (who does not speak the
language), adding, “There were arguments on set over every single word.”
For financial as well as cultural reasons, Yiddish movies were never
easy to make. That Mr. Weinstein spoke no Yiddish is part of the
cinematic tradition. Neither Edgar G. Ulmer, the B-movie maker who
directed four Yiddish talkies, nor Joseph Seiden, the most prolific
producer of Yiddish films, was fluent. “Menashe” has affinities with
Yiddish cinema of the 1930s in other ways. By dramatizing the
relationship between parents and children, the film explores one of its
“Menashe” is not the only recent addition to the corpus of Yiddish
cinema, which includes silent movies. When I wrote a history of the
field, published in 1991, I was able to screen every existing example,
most of which had been acquired by the National Center for Jewish Film.
But since then, newly discovered films appeared. A Yiddish-language
anti-Nazi feature from 1933 turned up amid the nitrate prints owned by
the proprietor of a Brooklyn camera store. Fragments of a drama from
1911 surfaced in Russian archives and a filmed version of the Yiddish
play “Shulamit” was found in Hungary.
An even more dramatic find is “Broken Barriers,” a 1919 silent hitherto
known only through references in old newspaper clippings, given to the
center by the great-granddaughter of one of its producers, Leopold
Kehlmann. Based on the same Sholem Aleichem stories that the
actor-impresario Maurice Schwartz would dramatize 20 years later in the
most familiar of American Yiddish talkies, “Tevya,” and that would
subsequently provide the basis for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,”
the movie is currently being restored with help from the National Film
Mr. Weinstein believes that even if Mr. Lustig does not see “Menashe” as
suitable for religious Jews, its success has inspired Mr. Lustig to
consider making his own films. New documentaries are also in production.
Mr. Weinstein may turn his casting sessions into one, although he is not
planning a follow-up feature.
“I loved making ‘Menashe’ but I’m done,” he said, offering a Hebrew
blessing to anyone who wants to try it again.
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