Menashe’s surprising triumph over sectarianism

Can this film help to change perceptions, asks David Aaronovitch

December 13, 2017 20:32

My late mother was a film buff. Given her politics, one aspect of this was her liking for Russian movies, from 20s’ agitprop to 60s’ art-house. But another was her capacity to enjoy what might be called “elegiac” or “sedate” films, from Bergman to Antonioni. And she passed on this predisposition to her children. Almost the first grown-up films that I took myself to as a young teenager were Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex and Bertolucci’s The Conformist. In those days, in London, the Academy in Oxford Street and the Everyman in Hampstead joined the National Film Theatre in screening challenging movies. The Academy is no more and the Everyman was saved by becoming a chain and showing Paddington Bear and Star Wars on a wine-softened loop. Thank God for the Curzon.

So it was a surprise to discover last weekend that a local Everyman was carrying a film in which there were no explosions, no sex and no CGI. A foreign-language film with sub-titles. And that the foreign language was Yiddish (see my last column), the language my grandmother spoke, and that we mistook for bad English as delivered by someone who’d forgotten to put her teeth in.

Since you’re reading this in the JC, you are already 10,000 times more likely than anyone else to go and see Menashe. And also, fast it isn’t! Menashe, a recently widowed middle-aged Charedi man living in Brooklyn, wants effective custody of his ten-year-old son but the community is reluctant to allow the child to live in a house in which there is no married couple. And that’s more or less it.

Despite the charm of the lead actor and the boy playing his son, and despite the Yiddish, I came out of the cinema thinking that I had been bored. It hadn’t really gone anywhere and nothing much had happened. There was some opportunity to see what Strictly Orthodox life might be like for men (women hardly figured), with their arcane costume, their suffocated prayer mumblings, their strangled singing and their “ruv”-centred religiosity, but in terms of plot? Meyle.

But then I couldn’t get it out of my head. The small things — shrugs, grimaces, a minor kindness, an odd ritual, a plaintive look, all kept coming back to me. The film, its location and characters, had taken up lodgings inside me.

Once you looked beyond the particular – the exotic, claustrophobic way of life – the human universals of love, depression, anxiety and loss were all present. Much more present in fact for being so undramatic and real. Take away the beth midrashes and the farbrengens, and this could have been set in your living room.

But then that created another appreciation. In one scene, Menashe and his son are shopping for pictures to decorate the wall of his tiny apartment for the (men only) memorial meal he is hosting for his late wife. The perfect thing, they decide, is a hideous portrait of a bearded rabbi against a florid sunset. How weird is that? Then the brother of dead wife, a successful real-estate agent who thinks his sister married a shlimazel — a loser— can scarcely enter a door with his hat perched on top of all that hair. And there’s the ritual hand-washing on waking up that I had never heard of.

But once the people are normal, it’s easier to see aspects of the culture as universal. Is a Christmas tree or a giant chanukiah any intrinsically odder than a Lag Ba’Omer bonfire? Or the ruv picture weirder than a royal wedding china set or Athena’s tennis girl poster? Could anything be more eccentric than the Mass that Catholics attend, with its “body of Christ” intonation? Or chocolate Advent calendars.

What would Menashe make of the rituals of football fandom, from segregation to song-chants such as, “Can we play you every week?” “Is this the Emirates?” and “We hate Nottingham Forest”, to the booing of an opposition player because he once played for a local rival? I’d like to see him have the tooth fairy explained to him, let alone the Easter bunny. This Santa Claus, why red? Why reindeers? In one night? And you call me archaic!

It has been a glorious few years for the sectarians. It is as though common humanity peaked in London in 2012 and since then the smart money has all been on emphasising what divides us, not what we have in common. We have all been dragged on a slow journey to Charlottesville. A film like Menashe is a barely perceptible pointer in another direction.

David Aaronovitch is a columnist for The Times

December 13, 2017 20:32

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