Madeleine Davies

Archive for 2018|Yearly archive page

A schlimazel single father observed: Review of ‘Menashe’

In Uncategorized on May 27, 2018 at 4:42 pm


LONE fathers are not absent from film. I immediately think of Sam Baldwin, played by Tom Hanks, in Sleepless in Seattle, describing to his son how his mother could peel an apple in one go. Single Dads can be anxious (Finding Nemo), heroic (To Kill a Mockingbird), or neglectful (My Girl). They might be in crisis (Signs) or, perhaps improbably, ready to date Claudia Schiffer (Love Actually).

None of them would have been familiar to Menashe Lustig when his wife died, suddenly, in 2008. A Hasidic Jew, the first time he set foot in a cinema was to see himself ambling into view on the streets of Borough Park, his home in New York, at last year’s Sundance Festival. Menashe is his story (he estimates that 95% of the plot draws on his own experiences) – that of a young widower whose only child is taken to be raised by another family.

It is a beautiful film shot with a kind eye. Praised for its respectful exploration of a world alien to its audience, it offers glimpses of a life deliberately set apart from modern, secular culture. But it also exists as a bridge to the universal, capturing tenderly the way a home feels both empty and prone to chaos, after the loss of a mother. Menashe’s resistance to “meddlers” will be familiar to others who have sought to ward off those who, well-meaning or otherwise, seek to bring order.

It’s also an important meditation on wisdom and tradition. These meddlers are not sanctioned by the State, but members of Menashe’s religious community, drawing on sacred texts. It is the “Rav” (Rabbi) who rules that his son, Rieven, should be raised in a two-parent home, with his Uncle. The Talmud says that three things bring a man peace, he reminds Menashe: “a nice wife, a nice house, and nice dishes”. Menashe lives in a small, spare apartment, with sparsely populated shelves and a mattress on the floor for his son to sleep on. For breakfast he offers coke and some left-over cake that must be scoffed down in seconds in order to make the school run. There is no sign, not a single photograph, of the woman who must once have lived there.

The Rav’s decision initially seems cruel, but as we watch Menashe go about his daily routine, over-sleeping, ambushed by a landlord seeking arrears, drinking too much, we might hear echoes of debates that more commonly take place between social workers and families: is this a fit parent? The camera becomes a witness – for or against we’re not sure – documenting Menashe’s efforts to prove himself. It could be regarded as another prying eye – another meddler – particularly given that the film was essentially filmed in secret. There are certain shots – Menashe gobbling a sandwich alone in a convenience store after a disastrous date, his listless face in a van window after another gaffe at work – that feel intensely private.

But there is a kindness to the film that reminded me of certain Bible verses about God’s eye on us – the God who knows every hair on our head. “You keep track of all my sorrows,” reads Psalm 56. “You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Despite the close-knit nature of the community, Menashe cuts a lonely figure. He’s often caught in the reflection of windows, or pictured in doorways, peering into the contented, organised lives of others. He’s not even the first “Menashe” that comes to the mind of his cousin, on receiving his phone call. It is only the camera that is intimately present, there to capture moments of triumph among failure and ineptitude.

The most beautiful scene shows father and son on a hill overlooking the water at dusk. Rieven’s kippah has been gently caught and returned to its proper place after it flies off while he swings on a tree branch. The duo are set apart from the other families, but together.  It carries a sad echo, later, when it is pages of kitchen paper that Menashe is pressing to the back of his son’s head, after a fall in the kitchen. But the love that this Dad has for his son is never in doubt, and there is something precious about the playful innocence of their time together.

Menashe is a prankster and, in some ways, still a child himself. He’s heavy-footed, stolid, careworn, but has the unlined face and rosy cheeks of a boy. At the synagogue, he steers Rieven away from learning about the correct behaviour in a cemetery to passages about the animal qualities they are advised to emulate, encouraging him, despite the hushed atmosphere, to perfect impressions of a leopard, eagle, and lion. It’s not that he doesn’t take his faith seriously – in an early scene he worries that unwashed lettuce goes against the Rav’s instructions – but he is passing it on to his son as something alive, tangible. It is while washing a baby chick that he teaches him why a Jew must be clean outside. The discovery of the same chick, dead in its box, is another mark against his capacities.

This combination of playfulness and irresponsibility has been explored in other films about single fathers, most recently Captain Fantastic. They test our sympathies, occasionally pushing us to side with those demanding greater maturity of the Dad whose antics come with a risk. Menashe is a “schlimazel” (a consistently unlucky or accident-prone person), urged to “become a mensch” by his brother-in-law. It’s interesting that one of the departures from Lustig’s life is Menashe’s decision to fight for his son. “It was very hard for my family,” Lustig told IndieWire. “They were good people. They thought I was full of emotions and didn’t want me to destroy my son.”

In Menashe the camera often lands gently on face of the Rieven, frequently an onlooker over-looked by the adults around him. It watches him observe his father, capturing embarrassment, disappointment. It is perhaps here that the film’s sympathies lie. Occasionally, the camera is placed at his eye-line, as at the BaOmer bonfire, so that the black-hatted men dancing ecstatically around leaping flames are seen looming above.

Although the film celebrates the place of Jewish ritual in grief, it is in a storeroom with Hispanic colleagues, sharing bottles of drink, that Menashe finally articulates his feelings, and we learn how complex they are. And it’s notable that what’s offered in return is not secular wisdom, but the words of Jesu Cristo: “If you forgive, he’ll forgive you. So your son is going to be alright. When he gets older he will understand.” It’s a nice reminder that perhaps the most authentic inter-faith encounters are not being carried out in seminar rooms, but on the streets. Menashe asks questions about the strictures imposed by religion, but also respects the comfort, the “fold” it offers, even if the threat of expulsion hangs in the air.

At the end of the film, the missing person, Rievat’s mother comes into view. “Her soul is in heaven,” the Rav pronounces. “She prays before the creator that you may raise Rieven well. All should say of your son ‘praised be his father’.” And to Rieven: “You had a very dear mother. She’ll always protect you.” There is discipline in this community, but there is also assurance. As the film ends, we see Menashe descend into the waters of the mikvah, faintly obscured by a hazy green light. It is another private, sacred moment, respectfully documented. As when gently bathing the chick with his son, he is demonstrating care – towards himself, finally – and making an outward sign of inward purification, preparing for a return to responsibility. We leave him walking the streets of Borough Park, wearing the coat and hat loved by both his wife and his son.

“All beginning are hard,” observes the Rav. “It will never be the same, yet life must go on.”

Menashe, directed by Joshua Z Weinstein was distributed by A24



The radical history of Protestantism

In Uncategorized on February 7, 2018 at 1:35 pm

Five hundred years ago this week, a professor put a notice on a board proposing a debate. It sparked a revolution in political history.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Reformation made the Europe we have today. The anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses – said to have been nailed to the door of a Wittenberg church – has inspired numerous political op-eds. The claims about its impact included the somewhat questionable notion that he gave us both Brexit and Donald Trump. Others tried to discuss the theological origins of the Reformation.

The commemoration allows us to bring all these disparate religious and political threads together, to remind ourselves that religion was once inseparable from politics, culture, the whole of life, really – and that, whether or not we claim a religious identity today, we are the inheritors of this faith-infused world.

As professor Larry Siedentop wrote, in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism: “We no longer have a persuasive story to tell ourselves about our origins and development. For better or worse, things have just happened to us.” The Reformation is a fundamental part of that story.

To briefly summarise what took place in Wittenberg, Martin Luther – a monk and professor at the university – was concerned about the use of indulgences. These were certificates promising remittance for some of the punishment for sin after death in exchange for good works or money. He was horrified by the abuse of ordinary people, including the “false understanding” of sin and forgiveness to which the practice gave rise.

His exploration of the Bible led him to the revelation that, as the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, put it in his commemorative sermon at Westminster Abbey this week:

“We are saved entirely, confidently and unfailingly by grace alone, through faith, and not by our own works.”

Convinced of the truth of this insight, Luther refused to back down when challenged by the Church. His explanation – “Here I stand, I can do no other” – sits happily in modern discourse. It speaks to the autonomy of the individual, the assertion of freedom of conscience, and expression. In 1520, Luther burned the papal bull announcing his excommunication. He became the most famous man in Europe.

From his protest flowed intense upheaval and division. Peasants revolted, and popular acts of iconoclasm were undertaken. Images of saints were desecrated; art was ripped from church walls. Huge swathes of populations abandoned the Roman Catholic Church and wars of religion erupted within and between nations, as political leaders made calculations about where their religious loyalties should lie. It was “the first great era of ideological politics“.

As religious divisions hardened, authorities were able to exert control by demanding the confession of the ‘right’ religious doctrines. This week, half a millennia later, the Catholic Herald urged readers not to forget the “bloody horrors” of the period.

Despite the growing imposition of political authority, post-Reformation Europe provided countless examples of acts of defiance. Many paid the ultimate price for echoing Luther’s “here I stand”.

But the violence wasn’t just inflicted on people. It went both ways. Authorities faced rebellions from within, as doctrinal justifications for the deposing of ungodly rulers took hold. This was not limited to Protestants. Marshall argues that tyrannicide became “something of a Catholic speciality”.

Edicts, inquisitions, laws, and wars failed to extinguish people’s religious convictions, or insistence on articulating and sharing them. Luther did not die for his beliefs but thousands did in the two centuries after his proclamation.

Last week, commemorating William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake after translating the New Testament into English, the theologian Dr Jane Williams suggested that there are still “some things so constitutive of what we are and what we long for the world to be that if we foreswear them we forswear all that makes life worth living”.

Unable to unite people behind a single religious system, leaders had to accept plurality of belief and practice. “Modern Europe’s pluralistic and broadly tolerant society does not represent an inevitable triumph of progress, but the specific historical outcome of a contested religious past,” Marshall said.

While Luther might have agreed with Dr Williams’ defence of fervour, a persuasive case has been made that he would have been horrified by what transpired in the wake of his protest. Certainly, he opposed the popular revolts that took place against secular authorities. He advised princes, in a pamphlet published in 1525, to kill “robbing and murdering hordes of peasants”. He sought to reform the Church, not establish rivals. Nor was he advocating a “free for all”.

He had an authority: the Bible. “Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture, or by evident reason, I cannot recant,” he told the church authorities in 1521, “for my conscience is held captive by the word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

What could not be pinned down though, given that all human mediators were held to be fallible, was the correct interpretation of it. As Dr Williams argued last week, the gift of scripture put into everyone’s hands was a glorious but dangerous gift. “It enables each person to interact and to begin to form their own faith.” Interpretations may be as numerous as individuals.

Brad Gregory, a biographer of Luther, argues that Luther inadvertently sparked a more pluralist society. If the only source of authority was the Bible and people could engage with it without mediators, multiple interpretations and rival views were possible.

The legacy of the Reformation, and how Luther would have felt about it, will remain contested. Perhaps he might have been most disappointed by the way his original revelation – “the generous love of a gracious God” – was somewhat lost along the way. Many popular representations of Christianity misread it as a life of endless striving to be “good enough” for God and earn a place in heaven.

But Luther’s discovery was different. It was that God’s grace was a gift, one that delivered him from acute anxiety. It was a doctrine he expected to bring freedom, if a different sort of freedom to the one which emerged. Like the experience of John Wesley, whose heart was “strangely warmed” by grace on Aldersgate (a plaque pleasingly marks the “probable” spot), it transformed one man, before his movement transformed the world.

This piece first appeared on on 3 November, 2017