HIGHLAND PARK – While other boys were playing video games, Alex Lipschultz was well versed in Roger Ebert’s List of Top 100 Films. At first his mom, Leslie Lipschultz, thought it was an excuse to avoid homework, but she realized he meant business long before he applied to film school at Boston University.
She never dreamed he’d co-write and produce a movie in Yiddish.
Leslie Lipschultz told DailyNorthShore, “When Alex came home and said he was doing a movie in Yiddish with subtitles, I said ‘Oy!’ ”
Alex’s dad, Stephen Lipschultz, said most of the people in the movie, Menashe, rarely spoke English growing up, though English is their native language. The story takes place in a Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
Alex Lipschultz answered questions about his film after a movie showing at Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park on September 7.
Leslie said she worried Menashe would be a creative indie film that wouldn’t make any money, but her fears were put to rest after she saw the movie. She’s seen the movie five times and has noticed something different in each viewing.
It also helped when her son announced that Menashe was one of the highest grossing foreign language films of the year.
Hard to believe? Not for Sara Sher, Lipschultz’s former humanities teacher at Edgewood Middle School in Highland Park.
“Alex was bright, capable, thoughtful and any success he’s having now is no surprise,” said Sher. “He has a wonderful family and I’ve known his mom for years and his dad. He was very intelligent and serious about learning.”
She added, “The class was for kids who were high-level critical thinkers who were often times creative and eager to learn, and Alex fit the mold.”
Lipschultz explained that Menashe is loosely based on Menashe Lustig’s life. He had a son from an arranged marriage, then his wife passed away suddenly, and as a widower and single father he had to relinquish custody of his son.
“That’s still the case today, but other parts of the film have been fictionalized,” he added.
Lipschultz co-wrote the film with Joshua Z. Weinstein, who also directed, and Musa Syeed. Alex and Weinstein both practice Reform Judaism. Weinstein lives in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, a fairly Hasidic (ultra-Jewish Orthodox) community.
“As a documentary filmmaker, Josh got to know a number of Hasidic men and women in the community and wanted to tell an interesting story, so he called me,” said Lipschultz.
Co-writer Syeed is a Muslim-American filmmaker who has written and directed several films. “I think he’s the first Muslim person who ever wrote a movie in Yiddish,” said Lipschultz.
The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, which was the first time Menashe Lustig had seen a movie in a movie theater. “This is a community where the true ultra- Orthodox are not allowed to watch movies let alone be in them, so it was a very arduous process to find enough people to convince to be in this film,” said Lipschultz.
None of the people in the movie are actors, though Lipschultz said Menashe has made some “silly YouTube videos, much to the chagrin of the religious community.”
Lipschultz helped a man fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a rabbi onscreen. He explained that the man in the movie who looks and sounds like an authentic Hasidic rabbi with a long, grey beard, and a commanding voice is actually a cab driver in real life.
“He studied to become a rabbi and went to the Yeshiva, but he never became one,” said Lipschultz. “This was his big chance, but he became very overbearing onset and I had to remind him that he’s not actually a rabbi.”
At the Renaissance screening, Kathy Bell from Evanston asked if it would’ve been possible to have made the movie in a different cultural content.
Lipschultz said, “When we made the film we strived to be authentic, but we’ve screened this movie all over the world including China, and people who have never even seen a Jewish person have related to the movie.”
Later Bell told DailyNorthShore, “I come from a family with Jewish heritage and strong Catholic heritage and my Irish grandmother could’ve been in either one of those families and fit right in. I also liked the city they selected in Menashe and the type of life you could have in a community like that.”
Highland Park resident Adele Carman provided her interpretation of the film’s thought-provoking ending. Caution: SPOILER ALERT!
“The only closure that I had is that Menashe got dressed up at the end, which led me to believe that he wants to keep the son so badly and that he’s going to be looking for a wife,” said Carman. “It’s a fine film that tells a lot about the orthodox community.”
She and her husband Fran Carman have been living in Highland Park for 25 years and enjoy frequenting the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema at 1850 Second Street.