While he was growing up in a Conservative Jewish family in Morristown, and attending what was then Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange (now the Golda Och Academy), few would have suspected that Joshua Weinstein would become heavily entrenched in the chasidic communities of Brooklyn.
But now, at age 34, the documentarian filmmaker is gaining wide acclaim in and outside the Jewish community for “Menashe,” the first feature movie he has directed.
It is the story of a widowed chasidic man in Brooklyn’s Borough Park who is compelled by the dictates of his rabbi and his religious community to surrender custody of his only child, a boy named Rieven, to an aunt and uncle, until Menashe can find a second wife.
Many elements of the story were compelling to Weinstein, whose first exposure to the world of Chasidism was through a car window.
As a child and a teenager, he would visit his grandfather in the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn, where he owned a toy store. On the way, the family would pass through the chasidic enclaves of Crown Heights and Borough Park.
“I saw all these people who looked nothing like me,” he told NJJN in a July 31 phone interview. “These were not the Jews I knew growing up, and yet at some point we were the same, and I just wanted to understand them.”
He sought inspiration from some of the great directors he studied in film classes at Boston University. Among them was Satyajit Ray of India, whose moving portrait of a single man in his Apu Trilogy has captivated moviegoers since the mid-1950s. Weinstein said he is also enamored of the post-World War II Italian “neorealist” directors Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. “For me, cinema is about opening worlds and understanding them,” Weinstein said.
Many of the films he particularly admires featured non-professional actors in lead roles. Weinstein was determined to follow in that tradition and also preserve the indigenous language of the community he’s depicting.
Although he himself speaks only “basic Yiddish,” he wanted to cast inexperienced performers who spoke “mamaloshen” as their native tongue. But there was a drawback. They would rehearse a scene in English for the benefit of crew members that would then be translated into Yiddish. “Basically a scene that would take three hours to film in English took 10 hours in Yiddish,” he said.
Weinstein began holding auditions in Crown Heights with the aid of producer Daniel Finkelman, a Chabad-Lubavitch chasid who helped him gain some entry into the world of other chasidic sects.
Out of thousands of Yiddish-speaking chasidim in Brooklyn, only about 60 showed up for auditions, he estimated.
But when Weinstein traveled to the Skverer chasidic enclave of New Square, N.Y., in the fall of 2014, he found a self-described “natural actor” named Menashe Lustig.
Appearing with Weinstein on WNYC-FM radio’s “Leonard Lopate Show” on July 21, Lustig said, “When I was born they were laughing at me. When I was 12, one of my rabbis said, ‘You know, he’s not funny; he’s talented.’”
Weinstein told NJJN he immediately realized that Lustig’s “raw talent as an actor was so much stronger than anyone else I had seen. He is comedic and at the same time a sad clown.”
Like the character he plays on screen, Lustig is also a widower who does not have custody of his son, a situation that provided inspiration for the movie’s plot.
Casting Ruben Niborski as Menashe’s son was an even more challenging task.
“It was really difficult because we couldn’t find anyone in the charedi world to do it,” Weinstein told NJJN, so he reached out to the wider Yiddish-speaking world and discovered “this boy whose parents were Yiddish scholars, PhDs. I was immediately captivated.”
And when the two would-be movie stars met for the first time, Weinstein told Lopate, Lustig “just melted.”
When he was offered the role, Lustig opted against asking for the approval of his own rabbi in New Square. If the rabbi were to refuse, Lustig said, he would “feel very bad about it — so I decided I will do it” without requesting permission.
When shooting finally began, “we filmed as secretly as possible,” said Weinstein. Finkelman served as their guide through the world of Borough Park.
Asked about complaints that the film could be construed as unsympathetic to a community whose rigid rules would deny a widowed father’s custody of his only child, Weinstein told NJJN, “I want to nip that in the bud right away.”
He said only 5 percent of the people who have seen “Menashe” believe it is “negative toward Jews, but most people who see it — Jews and non-Jews — think it a loving portrait of a community.”
“We all have rules in our communities,” he said. “This is about the rules in one.”
Before “Menashe” opened in commercial theaters, it appeared at film festivals, including Sundance in Utah, Berkshire International in Great Barrington, Mass., East End in London, and Berlin.
To Lustig, watching himself on screen with a German audience was akin to “learning Talmud with a gentile,” he told Lopate. “Thousands of people who were not Jewish were sitting down and laughing and crying together,” he said.
He hopes to act in other films, he said. “For me, it’s natural. Somebody asks me, ‘Do you eat breakfast? Do you eat lunch?’ Of course. I am born with this. I feel I have to do it because it is my talent.”
Weinstein — who resides with his wife in Brooklyn — is not sure what his next film project will be, but he is set on a course “to make the world feel smaller through cinema. People realize we look different and we talk different and we sound different — but we are all the same.”
“Menashe” will open in the coming weeks at theaters in New Jersey, including at the Bow Tie Clairidge Cinema in Montclair on Aug. 4 and at Roberts Chatham Cinema later in the month.