Nobody makes a film on a low budget with unknown actors in a language that no one speaks,” jests writer and director Joshua Z Weinstein.
And yet, despite the obvious drawbacks – including this being the first film in 70 years made entirely in Yiddish – this unusual strategy has garnered critical acclaim for his latest film, Menashe, which is released in UK cinemas tomorrow (Friday).
Set within Brooklyn’s strictly-Orthodox community, the story revolves around a kind and hapless supermarket assistant (played by Menashe Lustig), who, in the wake of his wife’s death, is prevented by Jewish tradition from raising his young son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), alone.
The child is instead sent to live with Menashe’s strict brother-in-law, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), leaving Menashe heartbroken. Frustrated by his situation, he asks his rabbi for one special week with Rieven before the first anniversary of his wife’s passing, to prove himself as a man of faith and fatherhood.
Weinstein, who was born in New York and raised in a family of “just regular, run-of-the-mill Jews”, has largely spent his life as an outsider to the tight-knit world of Brooklyn’s Chasidic neighbourhoods and admits to finding them “fascinating”.
During his younger years, Weinstein recalls his grandfather, who owned a toy store in Brooklyn, gifting some of his stock to Russian orphans through the Lubavitch community.
“The Lubavitch group is Chassidic, but it’s the only one that does outreach and they use mobile phones and computers. But these are not the people we made the film about,” he explains.
“Everything I thought I knew about Chasidic Jews was wrong. Most Chasidic Jews are not like the Lubavitch; they are so much more insular, dogmatic and really following rules that haven’t changed in hundreds of years.”
It was a world into which Weinstein wanted to delve further and make a film about, with the caveat that it would not simply show men with beards and big hats and speaking in English.
Unlike previous portrayals of the Chasidic world on film, Weinstein was clear he wanted to produce something authentic, “because that world deserved an accurate representation of itself”.
But to do so was not without its obstacles.
Firstly, Weinstein was adamant the actors had to speak Yiddish, even though it’s a language he himself does not understand.
“To do the film in English would have been ludicrous,” he declares. “Whenever you see Hollywood films trying to show this world, it’s always in English with a few funny Yiddish words thrown in here and there, but nobody speaks like that.
“We really lent backwards to ensure it was all in Yiddish, even though it meant the film took much longer to complete.”
His next challenge was ensuring the cast were themselves from the strictly-Orthodox community – not an easy task by any means.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people in that community and most of them were against what we were trying to achieve,” laughs Weinstein. “Only a few dozen showed up for auditions.”
As a result, his telephone number was distributed throughout the community and eventually he was able to pull together “an incredible group of performers”, including his lead actor, Lustig.
Of his first meeting with Lustig, who lives in a Chasidic community in New Square, New York, and works as a grocer, Weinstein tells me he was “blown away by this large clown, who was one part hilarious and one part brooding”. He adds: “You could really feel the anxiety and weight of life on his shoulders. So there was something very captivating about him.”
Knowing he “wanted to write for something that existed”, Weinstein found himself inspired by Lustig’s own story.
He learned how, in 2008, Lustig’s wife had died suddenly and the community had decided it would be better for his young son to live with a foster family. “The film is his emotional truth,” explains Weinstein. “In some ways it was quite traumatic for Menashe, because we were digging up the most difficult moments of his life and having to live them every day on set. But he also really enjoyed the opportunity to act and do something different.”
Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Menashe has received positive reviews from the critics – as well as from some unexpected quarters.
“We thought there might be a backlash, but the Chasids have also been supportive of the film,” Weinstein reveals. “They like that it doesn’t sensationalise their lives. Many don’t go to the cinema – but some secretly do – and tell me that the film shows just how their lives really are. They appreciate that.”
υMenashe (U) is released tomorrow (Frid ay)