By COLlive reporter
When Daniel Finkelman received a call from Josh Weinstein about his vision to make a feature film about the Chassidic Jewish community, Finkelman did not expect the project to take off like it did.
In January 2017, the film “Menashe” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it attracted the attention of Hollywood director Chris Columbus who signed on as an executive producer. Soon after, the film was picked up by prestigious distribution company A24.
A Lubavitcher living in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, Finkelman is known to the Jewish world for his music videos and documentaries from his boutique production company Sparks Next, spanning from “Unity for Justice” for Sholom Rubashkin, to Lipa Schmeltzer’s “Hang Up The Phone,” to Gad Elbaz’s viral hits “Hashem Melech” and “L’chaim.”
“Most films that deal with the Chassidic community are negative,” Finkelman tells COLlive.com, noting that in the worst-case scenarios, Ultra-Orthodox Jews are portrayed as money launderers and scammers, and in the best-case scenarios, they are portrayed as dissatisfied with religion and leaving the fold.
For “Menashe,” actors that are Chassidic in their own life were used, lending a sense of realism that is refreshing in a Hollywood production.
It tells the story of widowed supermarket clerk (played by Menashe Lustig) who attempts to organize a yahrzeit meal for his late wife and gain custody of his son, Rieven (Ruben Nidorski). As expected, he faces challenges, from both his Rabbi (Meyer Schwartz), and his brother-in-law, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus).
Finkelman added, of Menashe’s struggles to make a living and conform to the expectations of the community, “You would expect a guy like that to say, ‘You know what, I’m sick of all this, I’m shaving my beard and I’m leaving,’ but no, he actually chooses to stay.”
Finkelman was surprised by the success of the film, and especially by the number of non-Jewish people inspired by it. “People really related to the story, because it’s such a human story, about a father and his love for his son – something that everyone can relate to,” he said.
The film’s dialogue is entirely Yiddish. Weinstein emphasized the importance of the language not only for authenticity, but also for binding together the cast, for whom Yiddish comes naturally, although acting is relatively new.
“It was challenging, too, to shoot in Yiddish,” Finkelman added. “The director doesn’t speak Yiddish, and I personally speak only a little Yiddish, so we had translators on set who figured out all the nuances.”
VIDEO: Menashe – trailer
The production faced other challenges as well. Naturally, it was difficult to find Chassidic actors willing to appear on the big screen. The ones they found lacked experience.
During filming, which took place mostly in the Crown Heights neighborhood, some actors would “direct the director,” a filmmaking no-no, but also added valuable contributions due to their “insider knowledge” of the community.
Finding the lead was a matter of serendipity. Finkelman became acquainted with Lustig through his work with Lustig’s brother-in-law and Finkelman’s frequent collaborator, Lipa Schmeltzer.
Menashe is gaining rave reviews from film critics across the country, such as the New York Times calling it “funny and tender” and a “subtly powerful work of human drama” by The Atlantic.
“This film is so unique because it just shows the beauty of the culture, and just a slice of life of an average Chassidic man trying to survive the mundane, while keeping the faith rather than leaving it,” says Finkelman.
The film is currently playing at the Angelika Theatre and Lincoln Center in Manhattan, at BAM in Brooklyn, Kew Gardens, Upstate NY, New Jersey, Chicago, Baltimore, and Miami. It has also been sold for international distribution in Europe, South America, Australia, New Zealand, China, and Thailand.