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The Sundance Rebel: How Hasidic Actor Menashe Lustig Defied His Community to Become a Festival Star

Lustig didn't ask his rabbi for approval when he acted in "Menashe," a film based on his life, but he figured out his own rationale.

menashe lustig

Menashe Lustig

Daniel Bergeron

Lustig seemed giddy about the film and that perspective clearly influenced his mindset, even as he defaulted to a pious point of view. In a radical move, he chose not to seek permission from his rabbi about getting involved in the project. “I didn’t want to put him a corner, where he’d have to say yes or no,” said  “I hope it will be all right. You have to be clever for yourself.”

Lustig and the film’s producers have privately expressed some concerns that he could be excommunicated from New Square, further distancing him from his son. In 2008, Hasidic actor Abraham Karpen appeared opposite Natalie Portman in a segment of the anthology film “I Love New York;” when his community found out about it, he was forced to quit. To avoid such problems, Lustig kept a low profile about the project. “We discussed all the possibilities,” Weinstein said, “and he believed that this risk was worth it.”

In his spare time, Lustig edits the Jewish edition of Wikipedia; he added some notes for the “Menashe” entry, explaining that it was not intended for Jewish consumption. At the same time, he sees potential for his own career to lead the charge in what he calls “kosher entertainment.”

menashe

“Menashe”

Courtesy of Sundance

“I tell you, the first reaction a strict Hasid has when someone different comes around is to be negative,” he said. ” ‘How will this person help me? What, they will make me a better Jew? What do you want from me? Why did you come here?’ ” To that end, he admitted he was initially skeptical of Weinstein’s proposal. “I had my boundaries,” Lustig explained. “I know all the films from the secular world have sex, love, all that stuff — but us, we’re not touching, we’re not even looking at women!”

He was especially troubled by a scene in which Lustig goes on an ill-fated date, but there were plenty of other concerns. So Weinstein visited Lustig at his cramped apartment, where they discussed what Lustig was and was not willing to do for the film, such as a scene where Lustig bumps into a woman while rushing with his kid to work. (That counts as touching a woman, which is forbidden in Hasidic culture.) A few weeks later, the director sent him a summary of the script; it didn’t go over well. “What should I tell you? It’s not kosher,” Lustig said.

To ease his nerves, Lustig spoke with producer Danny Finkelman, an Orthodox member of the Chabad community best known for producing Jewish music videos. (One of his most popular collaborators is singer Lipa Schmeltzer, also known as “the Jewish Lady Gaga,” who happens to be Lustig’s brother-in-law.) Finkelman assured Lustig that his involvement in “Menashe” would only produce positive results for his community, largely because Weinstein knew what he was doing. “There are clear lines between what could get somebody in trouble in that world and what’s appropriate,” Weinstein said. “Danny was there to reassure the actors that everything we did in the film would be appropriate.”

Lustig welcomed Finkelman’s insight. “He said, ‘You should know you’ve found a trustworthy man [in Weinstein],'” said Lustig. “‘The story will connect with all cultures, to show in a certain way how not to hate each other, how to work together.'”

Lustig considered the response to his YouTube videos, which took off without his active promotion. “People were asking me why I was doing this stuff, but I came to realize they were loving it,” he said. “How did people get to it on YouTube? I wasn’t showing it to them. If they want to see it, they can. I’m not rebellious. I do this because I feel I have to. I don’t think about the heat I could get for it.”

Few Hasidim in Lustig’s community pay attention to film and television. When Lustig began making the videos, he sought out his own education on the medium. Initially, he watched movies that dealt with the Jewish experience, from “Schindler’s List” to “Fiddler on the Roof.” It was the latter effort, adapted from the work of secular Jewish writer Shalom Aleichem, that made Lustig realize the value of collaborating with non-religious creators.

“He knew all the insights,” Lustig said, noting that the stage productions in his community lacked the creative discipline to create quality work. “The Jewish theater of today is just not attentive to this stuff,” he said.

He also appreciated a handful of contemporary movies about religious Jewish like, such as “Ushpizin” and the Israeli marriage drama “Fill the Void.” For Lustig, “it’s already a genre,” he explained. “We put a lot of effort into it to make it good.”

Lustig said that 95% of the plot in “Menashe” drew from his own experiences, particularly the challenges he faced when told he shouldn’t he involved in raising his child on his own. But unlike his character, he didn’t fight back. “It was very hard for my family,” he said. “They were good people. They thought I was full of emotions and didn’t want me to destroy my son.”

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