At the preview of Menashe at the Manhattan JCC last Thursday, director Joshua Weinstein expressed his tongue-in-cheek hope that the title character, a Hasidic widower who wants to raise his son without remarrying, will become the second most famous Jew today (the first, of course, being Ivanka Trump). Already reviews of the film are lauding the universality found in the particular. As a lover and critic of Jewish American cinema, I eagerly anticipated Menashe. A U.S. made Yiddish-language film—how much more Jewy can we get? But after watching the film, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what is being presented as universality is really old time misogyny.
At the JCC screening, Weinstein was asked about the representation of women in the film. Although he seemingly welcomed the question, he also got a tad bit defensive. Indicating that this was “the biggest debate” in making the film, he ultimately responded that this film was “not about a woman but a widower.” Fair enough, but there ARE women on the margins of the film and most of them are cast in unflattering, stereotypical roles. Menashe’s sister-in-law, who is raising Menashe’s son, is notable only for her “bad” and unimaginative cooking. A female shopper in the store at which Menashe works is obviously burdened by her large brood of children in sharp contrast to Menashe who is desperate to keep his son and who piously considers a large family a blessing. Menashe’s wife was not particularly fruitful—she bore him only one son. Notably, he expresses relief (albeit with respectable attendant guilt) that his wife died of a blood clot after undergoing in-vitro fertilization.
Yet, when Menashe pursues a potential marriage partner so that he can regain his son, she is cast as unfeeling for being ready to be married again after only four months of widowhood. She also expresses disdain for a rabbi who advocates driving for women, suggesting that women are the real policewomen of patriarchy (to be fair, we have a VERY quick scene of one of Menashe’s nieces in the background arguing that the Ruv—Yiddish for rabbi—can’t stop her from attending college). Some might argue that Weinstein’s commitments to neo-realism compel this gender trouble; after all, the film is based on the life of Menashe Lustig, the non-professional Hasidic actor who plays the title role. However, even neo-realistically inclined directors (Weinstein is a documentarian) make choices. For me, the most telling and disturbing scene is one in which Menashe bonds with Hispanic workers complaining about their wives. Welcome to the Trump era in which the universal appeal made to a larger audience is a coalition of Hasids and Hispanics doing a version of Henny Youngman’s “take my wife, please take my wife” routine.