New York - From New Square To Sundance, Chasidic Comedian Enjoying The Spotlight
New York - A short film based largely on the life of a New Square resident premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival last week, offering a rare and authentic glimpse into the Chasidic world.
“Menashe” tells the story of a Chasidic widower who reluctantly comes to terms with community rules that prohibit a single father from raising his son on his own. Scripted almost entirely in Yiddish, and shot mostly in Borough Park, the film won praises from the Los Angeles Times which described it as “a heartfelt gem.”
“Menashe” closely parallels the life of its star, 38 year old Menashe Lustig of New Square, who lost his wife nine years ago and faced similar circumstances with his own son. Lustig, who says he is often told that he has a tremendous talent for acting, said that both he and his brother in law, Chasidic entertainer Lipa Schmeltzer, share an affinity for finding ways to bring happiness to others.
Lustig’s path to the big screen began after he appeared with Schmeltzer in a Chanukah music video in 2014. Lustig caught the attention of director Joshua Weinstein who had already shot several films exploring different cultures.
“He lives in Crown Heights and he realized that right behind his garden there was a huge Jewish community,” Lustig told VIN News.
Weinstein contemplated highlighting the Chasidic community on film, but had little success finding any Chasidim willing to work with him until he met Lustig. Weinstein traveled to New Square to audition Lustig, and while he was reportedly impressed with Lustig’s abilities, and Lustig had a passion for acting, it took time for the two to come to an agreement on a project.
Lustig admitted to having initial reservations about working with Weinstein, concerned about the possibility of being asked to compromise on his religious principals, something he adamantly refused to do.
It was Orthodox Jewish film producer Daniel Finkelman who convinced Lustig that he would be in good hands with Weinstein, and also assured him that he could trust Weinstein not portray the Chasidic world in a negative light.
Lustig shared his own story with Weinstein and, over time, the two came up with a Yiddish script that they felt would resonate with viewers of all religions and backgrounds, despite the language barrier.
Certain minor changes were made to the script to accommodate Lustig’s religious beliefs, including one scene that called for Lustig to accidentally bump into a woman. Instead, the script was changed to have the young actor playing the part of Lustig’s son, one of the few non-Chasidic actors in the film, bump into her instead.
Much of the film was shot on the sly, with Weinstein shooting several locations on Taanis Esther, when few would question the presence of an unfamiliar man with a camera amid the pre-Purim. The well planned timing gave Weinstein the ability to a rare opportunity to capture authentic footage in homes, synagogues and similar venues.
Weinstein took advantage of other Jewish holidays as well to accumulate footage.
“On Lag B’Omer we went to Nikolsburg to the big bonfire in Borough Park,” said Lustig. “He told me that to set up a similar shoot in Hollywood would have cost a fortune, but here we got this, with hundreds of people, for free.”
Many of the street scenes were filmed in Borough Park during the summer, when a large number of residents are away on vacation. In one instance the script called for Lustig to drive down the street in a battered pickup truck and ask his son, who was walking from cheder, to come into the truck. Because the son had been told by his teacher to go straight to his tutor’s house without stopping, the script called for the child actor to look conflicted by the request.
One particular take of the scene had somewhat unexpected results.
“Our camera guys were hidden from view and as I called out to him in Yiddish to come into the truck, a guy on the street saw what was going on and got worried,” said Lustig. “He came over to make sure that the boy was okay and we weren’t kidnapping him.”
Lustig said that he received many compliments after the film screened at Sundance, and was particularly struck by positive feedback he received Chris Columbus, director of many well known films including two of the Harry Potter movies. Columbus was one of several directors who worked on “Menashe.”
“He told me I did a great job and I was so proud of that because he is a real maven,” said Lustig.
After the film’s second screening at Sundance, Lustig said he overheard one woman say that she was surprised that the title character hadn’t taken his own life.
“I told the people there that one of the strongest messages of the film is that there is always hope,” said Lustig “Even when you think you are at the end of the world, there is also another world there and even when it is dark you are still somewhere.”
Unlike many Hollywood films, “Menashe” does not come to a final resolution.
“It gives you a glimpse of what happened and people ask me what happens at the end,” said Lustig, who hopes to remarry. “I tell them the story hasn’t finished yet. I am still alive and it is still happening. This is just a glimpse.”
Lustig, who did not ask permission from his rov before committing to the film, said that few in New Square have heard of “Menashe” but acknowledged that he may encounter some backlash.
“I may get heat,” admitted Lustig. “If so I will have to take it with love.”
Lustig said that the need for kosher entertainment continues to grow with every passing year, one of the many reasons he took part in the project.
“In the old, old days, even a tape recorder and newspapers were forbidden,” said Lustig. “People are starved for entertainment and there are people who are good directors, good producers and people like me who know how to act. It shouldn’t be that you have to go over the line to be able to use your talent or to enjoy good entertainment with a good message.”
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