Set in the ultra-orthodox Brooklyn Hasidic Jewish community, Menashe tells the story of a depressed grocery store clerk that’s bumbling his way through life after the death of his wife. Challenged to meet the standards and expectations of his Hasidic community so that he can maintain the custody of his son and yet failing at every turn, Menashe invites us into a powerful drama about love and loss, doubt and faith, as well as an inside peek into the closely guarded world of a strict Hasidic Jewish community. Despite his best efforts and intentions, the hapless Menashe just can’t seem to get himself together enough to gain the approval of his stern brother-in-law and their community’s Rabbi. Given one final chance to prove himself a faithful and devout member of the community capable of raising his son, Menashe sets out to defy the naysayers and gain the respect of those who have written him off. And in a profound sense, Menashe ends up finding himself and discovering his own self-respect.
Those curious about the closed-off world to outsiders of strict orthodox Hasidic Judaism will find an interesting glimpse inside. But people of all faiths or even no faith may be moved to ask questions about the expectations and standards of the communities to which they belong. What unspoken, unwritten rules and assumptions are there? Why do they exist? And what happens if you decide to buck the system? What about our own unique individuality and personhood versus the standards and expectations of the communities to which we belong? How do maintain our unique personality while also participating in a close-knit community with so many rules, including rules we disagree with? Menashe invites these and other questions.
Spoiler alert: the film is ultimately redemptive. In the pivotal and climactic scene Menashe plunges himself under water. Earlier he had taught his son about how Jews ritually wash their hands because if they are clean on the outside then they will be clean on the inside. Tension mounts as Menashe stays submerged under water for what seems an uncomfortably long time. This seems to me purposeful, for we are left wondering, even if only for a brief moment, if this film is going to have a tragic ending. But Menashe has something and someone to live for. And so be bursts up out of the water in a baptism of sorts, symbolizing a fresh start and a new beginning. It’s a new day and he’s a new man.