Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 25, 2017

Menashe

Filed under: Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 4:01 pm

Opening in New York and Los Angeles on Friday (locations are here), “Menashe” is an extraordinary film on a number of levels. To start with, it is the first Yiddish-language film in nearly 70 years. The earlier films catered to Eastern European immigrants who were interested in being entertained just like English-speaking audiences but in their native language. As such, the plots were often fairly conventional with at least one Western that might remind you of “Johnny Guitar”.

Since the audience for “Menashe” will likely be people who do not speak Yiddish, there are subtitles. Indeed, the only people who speak and read Yiddish nowadays, except for scholars, are the Hasidic Jews who live in Brooklyn and who do not go to movies, watch television or even go on the Internet. As the Jewish version of the Salafist sect in the Muslim world, the Hasidim are authoritarian-minded religious zealots who live in an insular, male-dominated society.

As it happens, that is exactly the world that is portrayed in “Menashe”, which has a nonprofessional cast of Hasidim that took considerable risks in taking part in a film that while being respectful toward their traditions challenges some of their key practices. That indeed constitutes the central drama of the film. Menashe is a man in his late 30s who is attempting to raise his 10-year old son Rieven by himself after his wife has died. However, the sect he belongs to will not permit single parenting. A full year after her death, he is under intense pressure from his brother-in-law Eizek and religious authorities to turn Rieven over to Eizek.

While Rieven prefers his loving father to the cold and remote uncle, he is savvy enough to understand that Menashe can barely take care of himself, let alone keep their family going after the death of his mom. Since there are strictly segregated sex roles in Hasidic families, Menashe has little idea of how to do what his wife once did. So breakfast now for Rieven might consist of a piece of cake and a cola drink. When he is preparing a dinner for the day of his wife’s memorial, he has to call on a neighbor to find out how to make a kugel, an egg noodle dish that is a Hasidic staple and that he burns.

When Rieven tags along with his father for a male-only drinking and singing party, he is appalled to see his father down three shots of vodka in rapid succession and obviously become tipsy. When his father isn’t looking, Rieven grabs his cell phone and calls Eizek to be rescued from Menashe who lashes out as his son as a snitch the next day.

Like John Travolta’s Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever”, Menashe has a low-paying job as a clerk in a retail store—in his case a small supermarket owned by a fellow Hasid. He owes his landlord back payments on rent and is constantly hitting up his boss for loans. In the first hint that the film is not romanticizing Hasidic life, Menashe argues with his boss about selling unwashed lettuce to a Hasidic housewife, a violation of strict Jewish dietary laws. He is told that the store’s profits are more important than following scripture.

Throughout the film, there are other signs of fissure inside the tightly circumscribed Hasidic world. In a visit to Eizek to pick up his son, Eizek’s daughter is heard complaining about why she can’t go to college. There are also arguments about why Hasidic women cannot drive a car. These are disputes that are going on right now in Hasidic neighborhoods and as the case in Saudi Arabia, there are voices for reform pitted against the hardliners. Despite the film’s bold attempt to address these conflicts, its main purpose is to reveal the daily rhythms of Hasidic life from the recitations of prayers during mealtime to dates arranged by a matchmaker.

The film was directed by Joshua Weinstein, a secular Jew who has only made documentaries in the past. The script was co-written by Alex Lipschultz, a secular Jew like the director, and Musa Syeed, the son of Kashmiri immigrants.

The story of how the film originated is told in a January 18, 2017 Los Angeles Times article titled How did a Sundance filmmaker shoot a scripted movie in the insulated world of New York’s Hasidim? I urge you to read the entire article but this excerpt should give you an idea of the challenges that faced Weinstein:

Weinstein, who attended a Conservative Jewish day school in suburban New Jersey, knew little of these groups growing up. He makes his living as a cinematographer, often on far-flung documentaries. But as he walked through the Hasid-rich Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park earlier this week, he spoke of his inspiration for the movie. In 2014 he had just completed a series of difficult shoots involving subjects such as poor villages in India and end-of-life care in the U.S. A more humanist story, in his own backyard, seemed appealing.

Without even knowing what story he wanted to tell, he began hanging out in Borough Park, bringing his notepad to the streets, stores and synagogues of this bustling neighborhood, often wearing a large black yarmulke to blend in. (Thank God for hipster filmmaker beards.) He also connected with several members of different Hasidic communities who’d left but retained roots in it, and linked up with a Chabad-affiliated casting agent who could bridge two worlds.

Matters would soon go awry. Would-be performers would sign on and drop out, realizing that it wasn’t worth the fallout at their synagogue or children’s school. Even now, Weinstein has declined to reveal the names of nearly all the actors apart from Lustig, knowing they could face blowback from the tight-knit community.

Financing was tricky too — money came from sources in the larger Jewish community, but in dribs and drabs. Weinstein would shoot for a few days or weeks at a time, put down his camera, go back to his day job, raise money, and then return to production. (The film was shot over a period of nearly two years.)

Locations would also fall through, as some store owners would get cold feet, fearing negative communal publicity.

“That’s the supermarket we shot in,” Weinstein said, as he gestured to a large store on a major thoroughfare. “Well, one of them. We got kicked out of four supermarkets, I think. They all form one supermarket in the movie.”

Meanwhile, only a small percentage of the people who came in to read for parts had even seen movies — and even then they tend to be locally sourced “kosher” recordings, low-budget productions with spiritual messages. Some had honed their chops at so-called “Purim Spiels,” a kind of Hasidic Chitlin Circuit of seasonal skits centered on the springtime masquerade holiday. Still, those were big, broad comedies — not exactly useful for a lo-fi drama. Weinstein asked performers to enact stories or behaviors from their own lives, wrote scenes around them, then fit them into the script.

Key to the film was Lustig. A member of the Skver sect, the 38-year-old had stirred up minor celebrity — and controversy — in his community after posting a series of slapsticky home videos on YouTube. Weinstein met Lustig and was struck by his talent and back story. Lustig had moved to London when he married his wife, a Hasidic Brit, around 2000. His wife would die several years later, and Lustig returned to New York with his then-4-year-old son. Like the widower character he plays, a family member had sought to keep custody of his son. Weinstein heard the tale and built his movie around it. Then he convinced the Hasid to take a starring role.

“I don’t feel I’m being rebellious,” said Lustig, as he waited in the lobby at a pre-festival reception in Manhattan that evening, in his trademark beard and conservative garb. “I just think if someone has talent — if God gives you talent — because you’re a Jew you’re not allowed to use it? It doesn’t make sense.”

Ilan Halevi wrote an authoritative Marxist study titled “A History of the Jews: Ancient and Modern, history of the Jews” that places the Hasidic movement in the context of economic and social dislocations of 19th century Europe:

There is one area where Hasidism not only did not challenge orthodoxy, but outbid the rabbinical discourse: the crucial area of the cleavage Jews and non-Jews. The eschatological justification of difference as essential. Difference was one of the constantly recurring themes of rabbinical Judaism: Separation (havdalah) was a key concept. God separated Israel from among the Nations and this extraction was of an ontological nature:

‘Like day from night, like the sacred from the profane.’ Talmudic law pushed the horror of the mixing of species to the prohibiting any grafting of vegetable species. Kabbalistic literature was full of such expressions of national pride and messianic particularism. But the intellectual practice of the Mediterranean Kabbala could, through exegesis, lead to heretical questionings of this basic distinction, which cannot simply be reduced to the divine guarantee of the ethnic superiority chosen group. The rabbinical caste, indeed, was dependent on it for relations with the princely rulers and the stratum of intermediaries. The weight of this dual relationship tempered the cosmological tribalism of the Law. It had even, under the tolerant Islam of the Abbassids, allowed this tribalism to harmonize its language with the surrounding civilization, which was itself fascinated by Greek Reason.”

Nothing like this, no modification of rabbinical ethnicism was at work in universe of the Hasidim: the fact was that the persecution of the community was occurring in conditions that were unique in the history of this Law. The de facto separation of the Shtetl from the surrounding society, a separation that was not only religious and social, but linguistic and spatial, found in this the theological weapons it needed to assert itself. While postponing to an indefinite future the hopes for a political messiah, Hasidism also expressed, by its outright denial of time and place, the historical subjectivism of the Shtetl which could later fuel the growth of Jewish nationalism.

The internal crisis of the Shtetl, whose roots are to be found in the crisis of Polish feudalism, was exacerbated and radically aggravated. The domain of Polish sovereignty was shrinking rapidly. A kingdom that had stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea grew smaller and smaller as around it tsarist Russia, the Hapsburg empire and the German states grew larger and larger. The Polish question became the European question and centuries-old Polish Jewry saw its territory carved up among several states Austria, which took Galicia, lightened the conditions of Jews there: but Russia, having seized the Ukraine and Byelorussia, oppressed them there, said Lenin, ‘more harshly than the Negroes’. The Napoleonic conquest, short as it may have been, precipitated the disintegration, inducing a general upheaval in the empires of the centre and east. Following the French occupation, the whole map of the region was transformed. The new frontier of Austria and Russia, which shared the whole of what remained of Poland in 1815, cut the Ashkenazi world in two, divided the dynasties of Hasidic rabbis, and determined new sub-problematics. The sociological unity of Ashkenazi Judaism was beginning to fracture.

These upheavals deepened in the 20th century and at their nadir plunged the Hasidic population into Hitler’s concentration camps, where they died alongside their secular relatives. After WWII came to an end, they relocated to America, led by their Rabbis. When they came here, not only were they in a state of shock but were not sure how they would relate to American society.

At first they did not adopt the familiar Hasidic garb. The men were clean shaven and both men and women wore normal clothing. The only thing that made them stand out were their tattoos, which they received in concentration camps. I recall seeing them up in the Catskill Mountains in the early ’50s. The assimilated Jews referred to them as “the refugees.” I remember how shocking the tattoos seemed to me at the time. No Jew was supposed to get a tattoo because it meant that you couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Jewish religious codes dictated that you had to leave the world in the same way that you came into it. The only tattooed Jews I knew were merchant marines who got them when they were on a drunken binge in some port.

Eventually the Hasidic leaders made an interesting decision which goes against the grain of the American melting pot. They decided to recreate the Hasidic world in urban New York. During the 1950s, when there was enormous pressure to assimilate, when xenophobia was at an all-time high under the auspices of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and when anti-Semitism was expressed openly around the Rosenbergs trial, the Hasidim made the decision to reject American culture and society. They would create an enclave of everything that was “non-American” within the American heartland.

Not only did they decide to look non-American, they decided to reject the temptations of American success. Hasidic youth were directed not to go to college, since worldly temptations existed there. Also, during a time of enormous popularity for television and movies, they rejected both as impious. Most Hasidic families are tightly constrained by economic duress. When you have 10 to 12 children–a typical family size–and the breadwinner is a truck-driver or clerk like Menashe in a Hasidic-owned business, food and lodging expenses alone are onerous.

I have only gotten to know one Hasidic person in my life, and then only on a casual basis. This was Joe, a free-lance computer programmer I used to work with at Metropolitan Life. He had 9 kids and lived in a housing project. He said that it was extremely rare to see a Hasidic computer programmer like him because you generally needed a college education. He got into the field when this wasn’t necessary. He was a very likable guy with a sense of humor. He made no attempt to proselytize me. If anything, I was more of a nuisance to fellow employees because of my Trotskyist politics.

The Hasidim are a complex subject. On one hand they evoke admiration for their steadfast refusal to blend in. It was this stubborn “un-Americanism” that appealed to Philip Roth. One of the most memorable stories in “Goodbye Columbus” is about the resistance of assimilated Jews in a suburban town to the presence of a Hasidic yeshiva. The main character goes through an identity crisis/nervous breakdown in the course of the fight and decides to don a Hasidic black robe and parade through the town’s main street to everybody’s shock.

On the other hand, their exclusionism when mixed with power politics can lead to some highly toxic chauvinism. The clashes with blacks in Brooklyn and with Palestinians in the Mideast indicate how the historical pariah and underdog can become the oppressor given sufficient military and economic clout.

2 Comments »

  1. The Polish-French(-American) Marxist Norbert Guterman converted to Hassidic Judaism late in his life (according to Wikipedia). Guterman’s papers are held at Columbia – would be good if you can look into it Louis. Some reviews of his online:

    https://libcom.org/library/ordeal-france-norbert-guterman
    https://libcom.org/library/what-words-speak-norbert-guterman

    By the way, I don’t find any good Jewish secular critiques of (Hassidic) Judaism from nineteenth century Yiddish, German or Russian sources. It seems “Haskalah” is perhaps misleadingly called the “Jewish Enlightenment” since it is still entirely religious, arguably even more fundamentalist. Martov’s father, Aleksander Zederbaum, is considered a part of that.

    Comment by Noa — July 25, 2017 @ 7:10 pm

  2. we live in a town in sullivan county new york, which has always been a center of summer living for people from NYC, but for some rather long time now, toward the end of the 60’s (?), the hasidim began to come up for the summer, living in family “bungalow” colonies, and also in summer camps for thousands of girls; none of what Louis writes is new to me, and i can add the “take” of another (secular and atheist) person of a jewish nonreligious heritage;

    they arrive in the thousands, and the main street in the town in which i have my law practice is like an artery full of clots, especially on Friday because Saturday is the day of rest, so everything has to be bought beforehand, etc.,in the stores owned by them and open only in the months of June to early September;

    most of the time they seem not to have any interest in their surroundings, but we’ve had the pleasure of seeing mothers and children regularly coming to gaze at the brook outside our house

    Comment by isabelle hayes — July 25, 2017 @ 8:42 pm


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