Broad-faced and jovial, Menashe Lustig looks and acts a bit like a clown. Until a year ago, the 39-year-old was known as a comedian of that ilk, performing slapstick to his local audience. Lustig’s audience, though, is unlike most. He’s an Hasidic Jew living in a closed community in upstate New York, where he treads a fine line between staying within the rules and enjoying a certain freedom. The upshot is that his notoriety has left him struggling to find a wife, and as a bachelor, according to his community’s rules, he is not allowed to raise his preteen son.
Lustig’s dilemma became the genesis for Menashe, the first dramatic feature by cinematographer Joshua Z Weinstein, a secular Jewish New Yorker. He had been inspired by the YouTube video skits Lustig filmed in Yiddish for the Orthodox community.
“Menashe is hugely gregarious and does this Charlie Chaplin-esque comedy,” Weinstein explains. “As soon as I met him, I recognised this incredible sad clown quality to him that I just fell in love with. Comedy is easy for him, but this movie provides a really different kind of role. I made him go through incredible emotions, and it hurt him yelling at his son in the movie. Literally, he thought it was his real son. Menashe has an empathy problem in a brilliant way. All the great actors are incredibly empathetic.”
Lustig, who was raised speaking Yiddish, notes in his heavily accented English: “I tried to be authentic to who I am. When I watched the movie for the first time, it sent so many chills, because I remembered the reality of my life. Acting my life brought up all my old anxieties and emotions.”
Is he a bit of a rebel like his character, in not wanting to obey the rules in the Hasidic community? “It depends what rules. No I’m not a rebel. Let’s say I want to get married, but I have my way of life. It’s not like rebelling against someone, it’s more like a fight for my life.”
Having worked in documentaries, Weinstein has long been fascinated by devoutly religious people. “I always find stories about people who want to leave their religion and feel like society wronged them. For this film, I purposefully decided to take the opposite perspective. What if leaving was not even an option? I wanted to explore a character who loves their religion even though there are difficulties involved.”
Given that filming in Lustig’s community is forbidden – “Menashe’s in one called the Skver group, which is more extreme” – Weinstein relocated the action to Brooklyn, partly for aesthetic reasons and also because he says three of the roughly 40 Hasidic groups that exist are represented there.
Aiming to be as authentic as possible, he mostly cast Hasidic non-actors, though scored a casting coup when he found Ruben Niborski, who comes from a non-Hasidic family but speaks Yiddish at home. The sullen preteen plays well against Menashe’s exuberance and inadequacies as the father who must give up his son to his uncle and aunt following the memorial service of his late wife in a week’s time.
Still, Lustig is front and centre in every scene, playing a lovable klutz we cannot help but love. In person and on screen, he is a force of nature.
Where does his humour come from? “I was born with it,” he replies. “I’m actually the sixth child among 13 siblings, and half of them are talented like me. But none of them do what I do. It took so much courage. I made the first YouTube clip in 2006 and they were saying, 'Performing in public? Are you crazy? People will see it and laugh at you!’ It's about creating stuff.”
Menashe the movie star
Ultimately, Lustig’s performance in the film was so impressive that in Sundance last year, he became a cause de célèbre. Remarkably, it was the first time he’d seen a movie in a cinema.
“The audience was laughing and I didn't expect that they would understand it,” he recalls. “Often, people outside the community don't get all the jokes; it’s too homemade. So it was great that they got it.”
By the time Lustig moved on to the Berlin Film Festival, he was fully hyped. At the Israeli film party following our interview, he was bouncing around like a kid in a toy factory.
Later in July at the Jerusalem Film Festival, the film’s American producer, Alex Lipschultz (Computer Chess), explained that getting his star to Berlin wasn’t easy.
“The Berlin screening was Sunday, but we had to get him there early on Friday morning because of Shabbat. We had to find a hotel that was in walking distance to an Orthodox synagogue where he could pray because he has to walk to pray. We had to find all sorts of places that sold Kosher food. Menashe’s done a fair bit of travelling on his own when he was younger, but It’s tricky when he’s the star of your movie and you have to coordinate everything.”
So how is Lustig doing now? “I think he’s adjusting to the new reality of being in this movie and living with the pressures that come with that," Lipschultz says. "He’s been working at the grocery store going about his daily life in almost the same way. He wants to do other films, but is being very picky about what he’ll do. He’s had offers to be in big TV shows and big movies since Sundance, but he’s turned them down because they’re movies with sex or drugs and he cannot be associated with that. He has to find another semi-kosher movie."
Lustig adds: “People call me for stand-up and I’m not used to doing that. But I say, 'If you pay me the normal price, I will come.' I know I’m not the best at doing stand-up, but I’m doing it because I need the money."
Any offers of work or marriage should be sent Lustig’s way.