Yiddish is a language without a homeland. Once spoken by Jews almost everywhere in the world, it's used today largely by the ultra-orthodox in hermetic communities that insist on keeping outsiders at arm's length. Which is one reason why "Menashe" is such an unusual accomplishment.
Starring nonprofessional Yiddish-speaking actors from haredi communities in Brooklyn's Borough Park and Crown Heights neighborhoods, "Menashe" is filmed in that language, though director/co-writer Joshua Z. Weinstein did not speak it. It's a gentle, melancholy father-and-son story that's as notable for an evocation of its self-contained world as it is for its drama.
Though this is Weinstein's first dramatic feature, he has an extensive background in documentary film, and "Menashe's" style seems influenced not only by neorealist classics like "Bicycle Thieves" but also by constructed ethnographic documentaries like Robert Flaherty's "Nanook of the North."
As written by Weinstein, Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, "Menashe" is loosely based on the life experience of its star, Menashe Lustig, who has something of a YouTube presence in the Hasidic world.
The film's Menashe is a man of a certain age, not exactly svelte as he strides into the frame headed for work as a cashier and man-of-all-jobs at a small local supermarket.
Though he is diligent and sincerely religious, Menashe is also hot tempered and disorganized, with the look and attitude of an unmade bed about him. If there is a way to screw up a situation, Menashe will find it.
Menashe prays at a small neighborhood stiebel, and the word of his rabbi (convincingly played by Meyer Schwartz, a taxi driver in real life) is law to him. Though Menashe is hardly a rebel, there is one area where his life goes against the grain.
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.
Hungry for whatever moments he can get, Menashe, who is something of a big kid himself, is always sabotaging his best interests where Rieven is concerned, serving the child stale cake and Coke for breakfast and constantly making him late for appointments.
All these dynamics come into focus as the one-year anniversary of Leah's death approaches. Desperate to prove himself a good citizen, Menashe asks the rabbi if he can host a memorial for Leah rather than Eizik. Though all agree that "even a bear can learn to dance," whether Menashe can be who he needs to be is not so easily determined.
If these situations are not exactly pulse-pounding, that's because pulse-pounding was not director Weinstein's intention. "I was interested more in the nonplot elements than the plot of the film," he's said. "It was about the texture, the anecdotes, faces, moments." And "Menashe" does well capturing the myriad rituals and prayers that are the anchor of its subject's life.
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.
Rating: PG, for thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles