Drama ‘Menashe’ takes you inside world of Borough Park Hasidim

When the filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein decided to make a scripted drama set in Hasidic Borough Park, starring a cast of actors from the community speaking almost exclusively Yiddish, he did so with the awareness that he’d signed up for a difficult endeavor, to put it mildly.

The Crown Heights-based Weinstein, whose background is in documentaries, needed something of a miracle to pull off his first narrative feature film.

He found it in the form of Menashe Lustig, a late 30-something Hasidic man from upstate New Square with status in this insular world as a popular children’s performer and a robust YouTube following.

But acting in movies is not a normal career path for the ultra-Orthodox. So why did Lustig agree to star in what became “Menashe,” a film loosely based on his real-life story, in which he plays a widower trying to regain custody of his son, ordered by a rabbi to live with another family because his father never remarried?

“In Yiddish, people [do] not all the time get what it is, so you have to find artists who like it,” Lustig says. “… I want to create my talent. I want to give it out. You have to find someone who knows how to take it out from you.”

Weinstein “knew the value of a good act,” Lustig adds.

The filmmaker was struck by the degree to which Lustig — who Weinstein affectionately describes as “on the outside a little bit of a schlub” — could naturally “tap into so many vital emotions,” beyond humor.

“Humanity is not like Brad Pitt,” Weinstein says. “We’re all like Menashe.”

Beyond the star, the actors in the film, which hits theaters on Friday, mostly had not seen movies before. So the project offered them a precious opportunity, the filmmaker says.

“All the actors in this film knew they had something to share about themselves, about humanity, that they hadn’t been able to express before,” according to Weinstein.

Of course, shooting a picture like this in the real neighborhood, amid an extremely religious world that’s not naturally hospitable to such a venture, presented a host of challenges.

Some were humorous — Weinstein recounts an instance where an acquaintance of Menashe interrupted a shot to hand him a box to “bring to Monsey.”

And some were more serious, such as many of those who showed up for auditions being pressured to not participate in the movie. Or the producers getting negative calls or losing filming locations.

It was, Weinstein says, worth it in the end, because the movie humanizes its protagonist amid a milieu that can often seem foreboding and unfriendly.

“My mission statement to make films is to make the world smaller with cinema,” Weinstein says. “… No matter how different we are, we’re more similar than we’re different.”