Menashe Lustig, the garrulous star and inspiration of the new film Menashe, gets rather excited when I tell him I’m from London. “I lived there seven years until my wife passed away,” he says. “I lived in Stamford Hill, N16.”
He then informs me his son was born in London, his boy understands British lingo (“mobiles” rather than “cellphones”) and it was here that Lustig himself found his calling. “I was born with the talent to act, but I actually start to act in London.”
That’s quite an introduction.
We meet at the Berlin Film Festival, along with Joshua Z. Weinstein, the film’s director. The first post-WW2 film made in Yiddish, Menashe was first shown at the Sundance festival, where Lustig, a Charedi, watched t with an audience — the first time he’d ever been in a movie theatre. I try and imagine that; your first ever cinema trip is watching yourself in a film inspired by your own story. “It was one of the most uplifting experiences of his life,” says Weinstein.
Weinstein’s script is inspired by Lustig’s life after his wife passed away and he moved back to Brooklyn, New York. The local rabbi declared that until Lustig remarried, he would be an unfit parent for his son. Lustig refused and his son — now in his early teens — lives with another Charedi family. In the film, he plays a very similar character who works in a grocery store to make ends meet, as he did, and must deal with the same issues.
“I wanted to make an authentic tale told in Brooklyn that felt like it could be anywhere in the world,” explains Weinstein, a former cinematographer who has largely worked in documentaries. Raised in New Jersey, he would often visit his grandparents in Brooklyn and Queens, quietly observing the strictly Orthodox Jews in the area.
“I’m a liberal Jew, I didn’t grow up religious. Orthodox Jews, they’re my brothers that I don’t even understand really.”
For Weinstein, it’s been a steep learning curve. The community that Lustig belongs to “sold out the biggest baseball stadium in New York City to have an anti-internet rally. This ultra-Orthodox world, they’re not allowed to use cellphones, they’re not allowed to use internet.” Lustig interrupts: “No, cellphones you can use — no text messages, just voicemail.” Weinstein points out they sell “kosher phones” that perform only the most basic of functions.
What surprised Weinstein the most about entering into the Charedi community?
“How funny people were! Everybody. But also how naïve. They’d ask me questions like ‘what happens in a bar?’ No question was too simple. You just have to be understanding.” He recalls working in India years before when he was 22, meeting villagers who had never seen white people. “But here, this was a ten minute bicycle ride from my house and I was having the same cultural discussions.”
Weinstein eventually came across Lustig, 39, who now lives in New Square, a Charedi “village” in Brooklyn. Lustig had begun to make a name for himself, posting Chaplin-like comedy clips on YouTube, one of the first from the strictly Orthodox community to do so.
Weinstein was intrigued. “To understand who he was, and what made him religious, fascinated me. So by default, I wanted the plot of my film to be about a religious person who didn’t question his religiousness. I wanted to understand that character.”
Recruiting Lustig for his film was not easy. As much as Lustig was drawn to acting, he’s also a Charedi, and was initially reluctant to join a project connected to the secular world. “Most Charedi Jews would never, ever act in a movie,” clarifies Weinstein. “They’re afraid to be too secular,” adds Lustig. Eventually, Lustig agreed to participate, taking the radical step of not seeking permission from his rabbi.
It left a man already marginalised in his community, due to being a single parent unwilling to remarry, even more so. “Even people who make short films in the Jewish community told me not to do it, that I’d have regrets,” Lustig says.
There was the very real possibility that he could be excluded from New Square. “It’s a dangerous place for him to be but he really thinks that this world wants to see movies,” says Weinstein, “and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t see movies if they’re appropriate.”
In the end, to ease his star’s nerves, Weinstein recruited a member of the Chabad community, Danny Finkelman, who is best known for producing Jewish music videos. And for Lustig, there was much to be nervous about. One scene sees him bump into a woman while rushing to work, a situation forbidden by the rules of his community. But Finkelman reassured him that the story was a way to connect with cultures outside his own.
“I know there will be a little bit of heat,” Lustig shrugs. “There are some people in his community who are upset,” adds Weinstein. “Menashe loves the rabbi, and loves the community — so that’s the difference here. Even though Menashe is doing things against what’s normal there and against a lot of people’s wishes, at the end of the day, he doesn’t want to leave. He wants to stay there and be a part of the community.”
For the moment, Lustig still gets to see his son, who lives close by with his foster family. “I love it, it’s my home,” says Lustig. “It’s like they say in Israel: my land is burning — but it’s my land!”
“He knew he was an actor from day one,” says Weinstein. “He always made people laugh, and literally no-one ever allowed him to express himself.” Until YouTube and Weinstein’s film, Lustig’s biggest audience was Jewish weddings. “And they love, love, love Menashe!”
Now you can love him, too.
Menashe is released today.