When my wife passed away over 25 years ago, my world fell apart. After a year of parenting my six children by myself, it became clear to me that I needed to remarry to provide a semblance of a normal home life for my kids. It would never be the same. The past could not be replaced; but in some meaningful way, my kids would have a sense of family restored.
Menashe is an unusual film in that most of the dialogue is in Yiddish with a few English words thrown in. The story is about a recently widowed Hasidic man who is struggling to parent without a wife and mother at home. He faces many trials in trying to rear his only son, Rievin.
In the Hasidic community in which he lives, a child must be reared in the home where there is a father and mother. Menashe faces social pressure to remarry as soon as possible. But there is a problem. Menashe’s first marriage was unhappy and he is not interested in remarrying quickly, even though he knows that this may mean that he will be separated from his son.
Menashe works in a grocery store where he is a cashier and occasional salesman. He earns a low wage and has little money for extras. Eizik, his late wife’s financially well-off brother, offers his home to Rievin until Menashe can remarry and get his life in order.
Menashe resents his take-charge attitude, even when he knows that Eizik’s home is more stable than his. He feels Eizik looks down on him and treats him with disrespect. Menashe consequently is unwilling to accept criticism from him. Low self-esteem plagues Menashe.
Things come to a head when the anniversary of the death of Menashe’s wife approaches. Eizik wants the memorial in his home; Menashe wants it in his apartment even though he knows it will be less aesthetically pleasing.
To make the memorial service and the ensuing meal special, Menashe decides to cook a potato kugel. Unfortunately, he allows it to burn and it is barely edible. What is instructive is the way the various guests respond to the burnt kugel. Most take a small bite and quietly express their disappointment at the kugel’s taste. The revered rabbi who is present praises the food and encourages everyone to eat. More important to the rabbi than food is not embarrassing someone who falls short of community expectations.
The rabbi’s comments linger in Menashe’s mind. In his comment, there is a profound implicit message; namely, that you have to focus on the positive. When life brings disappointments, you have to accept them and move forward. You cannot wallow in what could have been or what should have been. For Menashe, this means accepting responsibility for his behavior and deciding to find a wife, even if she is not perfect. It will be a journey of self-discovery for Menashe as he tries his best to lead a normal life.
At the end of the movie, Menashe immerses in a mikvah, a ritual bath. Jewish tradition tells us that this act is symbolic of being born again. It is often done before the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, days when we want to shake off the sins of the past and turn over a new leaf.
Menashe may not be the most punctilious in his religious observance, but he definitely defines himself as a religious Jew who takes the words of God and the instructions of his rabbis seriously. His story reminds us that even when life deals us a tragic blow, God wants us to pick ourselves up and make the best of what we have.