The Sad Fate of a Hasidic Schlemiel: On “Menashe” (2017)

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Most films I have seen on Hasidim – save for the film Ushpizin (2004) – are utterly serious and often tragic.  Think, for instance, of The Jazz Singer (1927, 1980), The Chosen (1981) or Amos Gitai’s Kadosh (1999).

We rarely see comic films on or about Hasidim.  (Woody Allen’s little quips in Bananas (1971) or Annie Hall (1977) are mere asides; while his film Fading Gigolo (2013) does address Hasidim, it does so only tangentially.)  Menashe (2017) is different.  It is a tragic-comic film (spoken all in Yiddish, with English subtitles) that takes a Hasid named Menashe and his relationship with his son, his community, and his job as its subject.  Menasche is cast as a schlemiel (comic) and a schlimazel (tragic) character.     What interests me most about this schlemiel character is how it casts a new light on the fate of a contemporary schlemiel in the American Hasidic  (real and fictional) community.

There are two main ways of approaching the schlemiel in American cinema and literature which both fit on the same spectrum.  On the one hand, the schlemiel can be cast as a charming (although, for Jewish American writers, ragged and troubled) character – which is something we see stretching from the Yiddish fiction of Sholem Aleichem and Mendel Mocher Sforim to the Jewish American fiction of I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, and Jonathan Safran Foer.    We see this as well in cinema and in television (from Charlie Chaplin and Jerry Lewis to Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen).    But in the fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman and Philp Roth or in the cinema of Noah Baumbach and the Coen Brothers we see a schlemiel that is more tragic and pathetic than charming.     The Menasche character exists between these extremes.  And the critique he levels is similar to that of Gimpel in I.B. Singer’s celebrated short story, “Gimpel the Fool.”

Menashe is close to the American everyman.

He has a simple job (he works in a grocery store); and unlike his Hasidic companions, he has a simple understanding of Judaism.  Menashe is more a man of the heart than of the head.    (This film depicts the responses of other characters – save his son and, for a slight moment, the Rabbi – to Menashe and the schlemiel character in a negative light.  This is ironic because Hasidim are often more oriented toward the schlemiel character which his simple understanding of God and the world.)

The plot is heartbreaking.

We meet Menasche in the wake of his wife’s untimely death.  He is left with a child who he loves but, because he can’t – in the community’s eyes – make a good living and because he doesn’t have a wife, he is told – by his Rabbi and his wife’s brother – to give the child over to his brother-in-law to raise.  This breaks his heart.  And it breaks the viewers heart as well.

Menashe has our empathy.

Menashe is a charming character.  His childlike (schlemiel-ish) approach to life, his job, and his son are heart-warming.  Menashe is able to relate to his child in ways that neither his Rabbi nor his brother-in-law or sister-in-law can.

The symbol of the innocence that they share – something an adult schlemiel (father) can share with his child – is a baby chicken.  He buys it for his son when he is given a chance to take care of him (after profuse begging before the Rabbi and to the chagrin of the brother-in-law, who is a successful realtor in Brooklyn as opposed to Menashe, who can barely keep his job in the grocery).   This discloses the comic, endearing aspect of the schlemiel.

When Menashe insists on making a special meal in his place – to mark the one year anniversary of his wife’s death (her Yahrzeit) – everything starts to go wrong.   He starts, so to speak, spilling soup everywhere.

When delivering fish, Menasche accidentally forgets to close the door and spills hundreds of dollars-worth of Gefilte Fish across the streets of Brooklyn.  He is chastised by his boss.  In the wake of this mess, Menashe begs his boss for a little money (a loan) for the Yahrzeit.  He gives him a loan, but he can’t take care of his son if he takes it (he will be working overtime, after-hours, moping floors.)

When, on the day of the Yahrzeit (when he visits his wife’s grave with the Rabbi, his brother-in-law, son, and family) Menasha tries to bake a noodle kugel (noodle dish), he forgets that he left it baking in the oven.  The moment of his discovery of the burning kugel marks the time when things start becoming more…tragic.

When he comes home with the Rabbi and the entourage, his apartment and the apartment house are filled with smoke.  The bird is dead.  Even so, he makes the best out of it.   When everyone complains of frozen taste of the kugel, the Rabbi sheds some light by noting that it tastes ok.

But that doesn’t change a thing.

Menashe loses his child; he cannot have him back until he can find a new wife.  However, since this happens at the end of the film, the viewer has no idea as to what will happen next.  Can the schlemiel find a new wife?  Does the schlemiel want to?

The last scenes of the movie are of Menashe dunking in a ritual bath, a Mikveh, juxtaposed to him working in the grocery.   This symbolizes a new beginning of sorts.  But what is that new beginning?

Is he – and are we – realizing the cruelty of the society around him? Do we empathize – as we do with I.B. Singer’s Gimpel – with the schlemiel and his predicament?

At a few points in the film, we are given hints of Menashe’s falling away from the community.  One day, he sleeps too late.  He forgets to wash his hands in the morning.  He also asks about – at one point – why a person without a family is considered a heretic by his community.  Even so, Menashe doesn’t change the way he dresses and he still prays.

When Menashe studies Torah (the Bible and oral tradition with his son) he makes noises that echo a verse from the Psalms.  He is – like Sholem Aleichem’s Motl – closer to animals than to his community.

Put theoretically, Menashe is a child-like schlemiel who is closer to nature than to culture.  As Hannah Arendt said of the schlemiel (vis-à-vis Heinrich Heine), his freedom comes from critiquing the status-quo and his closeness to nature and innocence.  Menashe, in his humanity, by his very nature and his predicament as child-like defies norms; but he is alone.

While this is all fine and good and while we find his innocence charming, Menashe doesn’t seem to have a place with his community and we are unsure whether he wants one. The only thing that seems to keep him in there is his child.    We want to see them together.  But what makes this so fascinating is that the family (and not monotheism) – as the scholar Michael Wyschogrod in this book, The Body of Faith notes – is truly the basis of Judaism.

The schlemiel, it seems, is pit up against this fundamental structure of Judaism.  While he has already raised a child, if Menashe doesn’t immediately get remarried, his child may not have the nurturing that only a Jewish mother (according to the tradition and the Bible itself) can provide. The child will become – like Sholem Aleichem’s Motl – an orphan of sorts.

But in that novel, Motl the Cantor’s Son, Motl loses his father, not his mother.  Perhaps this is the tragic note.  Without a father but with a mother, the schlemiel’s life is nurtured. Without a mother, however, it is more tragic.  Judaism – without mothers  – cannot survive.

For this reason, Menashe is a tragic-comic character.   Gimpel levels a critique against the community (for the reader) because while he trusts them and believes in their goodness, they lie to him.  Here Menashe is punished by a community because he cannot raise his son in the traditional manner.

The schlemiel prompts the question: will the community change?  Will it accept the innocent character who falls on the margins?  Or does it leave no room for the schlemiel?  The irony is that the first sighting of the schlemiel character – as a literary kind of character – was in the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav.  The schlemiel is a figure of simplicity and of hope.  When the community squashes that – even if it is in the name of family – what does that imply?

These are the questions I had and still have after seeing Menashe – a film that spans the schlemiel spectrum and prompts its viewers to consider the sad fate of a Hasidic schlemiel.