At the preview of the film “Menashe”  at the Manhattan JCC in July, 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). An unmarried man in this community is considered unfit for single parenthood, and this creates the conflict of the film. Early reviews of the recently released film laude 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 his film. Although he seemingly welcomed the question, he also got a tad 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 where 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 had not been 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, the candidate is cast as unfeeling for her readiness to marry again after being a widow for only four months. She also expresses disdain for a rabbi who advocates driving for women, a moment suggesting to the audience that women are the real patriarchal police. (To be fair, we have a very quick scene with 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 nonprofessional 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 the one in which Menashe bonds with Hispanic workers in complaining about their wives. Welcome to the Trump era, in which the universal appeal made to a larger audience is a coalition of Hasidim and Hispanics doing a version of the Henny Youngman routine “Take my wife…Please.”
It’s painful for a Jewish film critic to write this. Given that Yiddish cinema was decimated by assimilation and by genocide, a contemporary Yiddish-language film should be cause for celebration. And I laud Weinstein’s impulse to represent on screen those ultra-Orthodox who wrestle with their religious community but nonetheless choose to remain within it. Some of the positive press on this film is no doubt a desire to celebrate Yiddish and to diversify representations of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Yet I also suspect that the clichéd images of male Hasidim, happy only when they’re singing and drinking, appeal because these Jews are simultaneously other and yet recognizable as a contemporary boys’ club.
Helene Meyers is Professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University. She is the author of Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness; Femicidal Fears: Narratives of the Female Gothic Experience; and Reading Michael Chabon. Her current book project is on Jewish American cinema.