12 December 2017



I went to see this in the cinema at the weekend because I'm always irresistibly drawn to films about the Jewish way of life, especially as relating to the Jewish experience during World War Two, and I truly hope that that doesn't sound glib or flippant or anything.

This film was nothing to do with the Holocaust whatsoever, though, my own special area of interest, and it was actually so weird to be watching a film about Jewish people that didn't have any Nazis or concentration camps in it for a change.

Instead, it's a film about ordinary Jewish people living in modern times in America who have the same problems as the rest of us. Well, maybe some of their problems are a little different, lol, and this film concerns one of these in particular. Let's have a deeper look at the plot and see what's what.

Menashe is actually the title character. Except for the skullcap and the prayer locks, he physically resembles nothing so much as a genuine bonafide Irish hipster, believe it or not. Big and burly, with glasses and a huge bushy beard, he works as a grocery store clerk and lives with his young son Rieven in the Hasidic Jewish community of Brooklyn's Borough Park Area. He's also recently bereaved and therein lies the root of Menashe's main problem.

Pushed unwillingly into an arranged marriage at the age of twenty-two, we infer from things that Menashe says to his two buddies at the store where he works that he didn't love his wife and he's not exactly grieving for her now.

We don't hate him for that, though. You can hardly blame either party in an arranged marriage if they dislike each other on sight, or even actively hate each others' guts. The same thing can happen even when couples freely choose whom they want to get spliced to, lol.

I know that feeling. A few years ago, when I was just starting out as a performance poet on the Dublin scene, I met this guy in a writers' group. From the moment I saw him, I knew I wanted him, even though I was going out with someone else at the time.

Long story short, I dumped the first guy- by text!- and took up with my (supposed) dream guy. Everything was grand for a month or two. The sex was great and we had lovely long talks. Then he started to irritate me. I started to notice things about him that drove me absolutely up the f**king wall. It actually got so I couldn't stand to look at him.

I dumped him after six months- again by text!- and immediately sat down and wrote my as yet unpublished opus, 'FIFTY POEMS ABOUT HOW MUCH I HATE YOU.' Don't blame me. I just needed to get it all out of my system.

A tennis player can bash a few balls about, a runner can run as far and as fast as (s)he likes. A writer writes. The moral of this story is that you should never go out with me. Sadly, I am poison when it comes to dating. I don't want to be. It's just the way it is.

To get back to Menashe, whose romantic history we're supposed to be discussing, the point is now that the Jewish community of which Menashe is a part insists that children be brought up in two-parent families only.

None of this Single Mom, Single Dad stuff. In a way, I see their point. I'm a single Mom myself and, though we manage, this lark'd be a heck of a lot easier if there were a second adult on board this choo-choo train.

The community of Hasidic Jews in the film are so strict about the whole two-parent-family bringing-up-kids thing that Menashe's son Rieven- he's about ten or twelve years old- is actually in danger of being kicked out of his school if Menashe doesn't shift himself and find a new wife. I'm serious. He has to find a new missus or his son will be taken away from him.

Not by the Social Services or anything sinister or irreversible like that, but by Menashe's
infuriatingly superior brother-in-law Eizik, the brother of Menashe's deceased wife. Eizik is everything that poor Menashe is not.

Eizik has a stable home-life and a wife, a house and several kids. I'm not sure what Eizik does for money, but he wears the traditional good black overcoat and top hat in public like the other male Hasidic Jews, and unlike Menashe who bumbles around in his shirtsleeves and gets yelled at every day by his boss.

Eizik maintains stolidly that Menashe is a messer and a loser, basically, who doesn't command respect. Do something to earn respect, he tells his downcast brother-in-law, and then maybe I'll respect you. It's better for Rieven to live here with him and his family, Eizik maintains, because he'll have a stable upbringing then.

Eizik even squeals on Menashe to Rabbi Ruv or 'the Ruv,' the moral and spiritual boss of all of them. Look at him, Eizik bleats. Look at the mess he's in. Look at the state of him. He's not fit to bring up a child alone, or even to hold the memorial service for his dead wife in his grotty little flat. Eizik wants to hold the service in his own, much finer home.

Here, Menashe draws a line in the sand. He wants to hold the service for his own wife in his own home and he'll even go so far as to beg a 'bachelor-proof' recipe for kugel from a female neighbour, who's only too glad to help out a hapless male in distress.

The Rabbi agrees that Menashe can hold the service in his own home and, furthermore, he'll give Menashe a week to prove to the community that he can be an effective single parent to Rieven. Menashe is thrilled to be given the chance. Will he blow it, as everyone expects- well, mainly Eizek- or will he step up to the plate and become a real man at last? The results may surprise you...

I love the scene where Menashe is having dinner in the restaurant with the woman the Jewish matchmaker has set him up with. I don't think you're my type, he tells her a bit brutally. Oh, and you're my dream guy, I suppose, she snarks back, quick as a flash, the guy I've been waiting all my life for? You go, girl. Serves Menashe right for being so unflatteringly blunt...!

Menashe's boss in the dreary supermarket is a brilliant character. Brilliantly awful, that is. He clearly despises Menashe and thinks he's a big bumbling arse, lol. He'd probably get rid of him if he could. I wish they'd used this character a bit more, he was so much fun to watch. Anyone who's ever worked in retail has probably had a boss like this one, lol again. That's two 'lols' now, lol...!

But oh my God, the soul-destroying nature of Menashe's job, handling fish in boxes and mouldy old lettuces and whatnot, is writ large across the screen for everyone to see. No wonder Menashe always looks so bloody depressed. Seriously, who wouldn't be in a job like that?

Where are all the women, by the way? There aren't really any women in the film. All the big decisions seem to be made by men, so maybe the women are all at home having babies and keeping house.

Women are not seen taking part in any of the fascinating Jewish rituals involving singing and gathering around bonfires that we see on-screen, and they're not invited to the boozy shindigs the men enjoy or even to the memorial service for Rieven's departed mother.

And is Eizik's wife happy, that's what I'd like to know? Just because her husband's faith is strong and he follows the Rabbi's guidance and he's a respected observer of Jewish traditions doesn't mean that he's not a big fat jerk to live with behind closed doors.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017 and the language is Yiddish. I'd never heard Yiddish being spoken before, and it sounded to me like a curious mixture of German and English. We see Menashe studying religious texts of which I think the language might be Hebrew but I'm not sure. Either way, it looks like it might be very, very hard to learn...! Definitely not for a dummy like me.

MENASHE is not an action movie. Not a lot happens in it. It's more like the director has taken the main character's life and served us up a steaming hot slice of it, the slice that features the tricky issue of Menashe's single parenthood in a society that frowns upon it and even insists on his rectifying and stabilising the situation. I hugely enjoyed it. Hopefully you will too.


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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