Skverer Rebbe told Menashe his son would have to be fostered after wife's death


MENASHE Lustig is not your typical chassid. Not only does he watch DVDs, which is forbidden by his Skverer Chassidic community, but he has starred in a film currently being screened in British cinemas.

Yet Menashe is no drop-out. He still lives in the chassidic village of New Square and deeply respects the Skverer Rebbe David Twersky.

The Yiddish film Menashe - named film of the week on BBC Radio Five's Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode review programme - is based on Menashe's own life.

Menashe was born into the totally chassidic and Yiddish-speaking village of New Square, in New York State, which was established to protect Skverer chassidim from the influences of the outside world.

Menashe only learned English, which he still speaks imperfectly, when he went to live in London's Stamford Hill on his marriage in 2001 to the daughter of a Skverer chassid hailing from New Square.

The arranged marriage was far from perfect.

After three years without children, Menashe asked the Skverer Rebbe for a blessing.

Rabbi Twersky told him that by the next Pesach he and his wife would have a child.

Menashe recalled: "That night my wife got her period. A month later she knew she was pregnant. Nine months later she had the child. My son, Yaakov Yosef, is a real blessing from the Skverer Rebbe."

Four years later his wife wanted another baby and raised money to have IVF treatment.

Menashe said: "I don't know why I didn't go to the rebbe again. Maybe I didn't understand why she should make such an effort to have the treatment."

A week after finishing the treatment his wife became ill and was rushed to hospital.

She died after being diagnosed with clots in her ovaries and heart.

Heartbroken Menashe returned to New Square. Although he loved his son dearly, Menashe, who had never before cooked or washed clothes, was in no fit state to look after him.

The Skverer Rebbe decreed that the child must be fostered by another family.

The film Menashe poignantly depicts Menashe's dilemma as, very much playing the pathetic schlemiel, he tries desperately to prove his domestic prowess in order to keep his son.

In the film, the child is fostered by an uncle, antagonistic to Menashe. In real life, Yaakov Yosef was fostered by the family of the principal of his school.

Menashe has just one criticism of the film, which claims that it is against chassidic law for a single father to raise his son alone, unless he instantly remarries to provide a new mother for the child.

Menashe said: "That is not Jewish law, but it was my situation. The mother is the housewife. She takes care of everything. I had never washed or cooked. I didn't know how.

"The Rebbe said that if I couldn't do it, I must marry and have a wife to take care of the house. Child protection would say the same thing.

"I felt so broken at the time, but I wanted my son. It was a conflict between logic and emotion. The rebbe had to make a decision.

"Now I live in my own apartment and my son comes sometimes for Shabbat.

"Baruch Hashem, he was barmitzvah and he is growing up better than if he would have been with me. My son wanted to be with friends and be settled.

"He knew that my house was not settled. Now I am very happy. I had to take that option even if I wanted him to be with me."

One of the reasons why Menashe has not yet remarried is that it is hard for him to find a Skverer chassidic wife who would agree to letting him watch films.

He did not want to get married just to provide a surrogate mother for Yaakov Yosef.

He said: "My wife has to be the right one. I don't want to fool anyone that I am extremely religious."

Menashe was introduced to the world of films by his brother-in-law, chassidic singer Lipa Schmeltzer, who, in turn, introduced him to Lubavitch film director Daniel Finkelman, who makes films for the Orthodox community.

Menashe soon became a star with his comic appearances in these films, performing such feats as trying to cook an egg with an iron.

It was through Daniel that Menashe met film producer Joshua Z Weinstein, who was fascinated by the chassidic lifestyle and so taken with Menashe's natural acting ability that he decided to make a film about his life.

Menashe said: "Daniel is my mentor. He makes films with Lipa Schmeltzer and Israeli singer Gad Elbaz.

"He convinced me that the film Menashe would be an amazing opportunity for the world to see a normal chassid, without him changing his clothes or his beliefs.

"Daniel says no to most other film offers. He says that they are not for me. It has to be something we can trust. I will only do a film if Daniel agrees."

Menashe reckons that the film which bears his name is a Kiddush Hashem (a good advert) for his Chassidic community.

He said: "Usually films about chassidim blame the community. The recent documentary, One of Us, really bashed the community and depicted chassidim as abusers who reject drop-outs.

"The film, Menashe, puts all the cards on the table, showing a chassid like me, who knows I'm different but I still don't want to move out.

"It shows chassidim as believers and how nice the community is. It is really a kiddush Hashem. It goes to the best cinemas and shows a good chassidic life.

"I have been with the film to Utah, Chicago, Washington, Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, Berlin, China, Australia and France.

"Crowds of non-Jewish people really connected to the movie in which I say Shema Yisrael a few times. It is really gevaltig (amazing)."

He added: "Acting in the film didn't change any of my hashkafas (religious views). I'm just doing it because people like it. My passion is to act.

"Everyone wants a little respect and attention, but this is something deeper. But it didn't change my life."

And Menashe reckons that his revered rebbe still accepts him.

He said: "I did not have the opportunity to act inside my own community. But I still respect them very much. My rebbe knows that I need satisfaction.

"I have been alone for 10 years. I tell my story. The rebbe knows that I am a good actor and that I don't have the opportunity to act in my own circle.

"Menashe is a cultured film. There is no touching of women, no dirty talk.

I signed a condition that it be cultured enough for modern Orthodox people to watch."

In Manchester last week for a Q&A session, Menashe stayed at Fulda's Hotel, where he said he "felt at home".

He had previously visited Manchester twice during his stay in Stamford Hill, for a wedding and a holiday.

He knew that there are several Skverer chassidim living in Manchester who had established their own shtiebel, but he did not see any of them on this trip, not wanting to mix business with pleasure.

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph