By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Alex Lipschultz has no shortage of material about compelling Jewish characterization.
One of the most hailed filmmakers of the year, the 33-year-old Lipschultz could update “Ordinary People” with memories of the secular, success-driven, pressure-packed Highland Park in which he grew up. In such an environment, an artistic type is usually an outlier. But in the process of navigating through that upbringing, Lipschultz developed the creative sensibilities to delve into the opposite end of his religion’s spectrum, via the life of a moral Jewish man existing within, and often challenging, the strictures of the Hasidic community in Brooklyn.
After toe-dipping into the corporate end of Hollywood, Lipschultz now is carving out a reputation as an “indie” film producer. His movie “Menashe” – made for less than $500,000 – has drawn international acclaim at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals Lipschultz also snagged the A24 distributor, which disseminated 2017 Academy Awards Best Picture winner “Moonlight.”
The end result of working the streets of the Hasidic community and gaining confidence, against the odds, of many of its residents has resulted in a winner on screen despite using Yiddish as its base language with English sub-titles. And the character of doting father Menashe, played by ultra-Orthodox actor Menashe Lustig, travels down a classic path in Judaism. Lustig draws the film fan in with his often understated acting, portraying a put-upon man with echoes of the Larry Gopnik character in the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” a 2009 sendup of middle-class secular Jewish mores set in 1967 suburban Minneapolis.
“There’s a lot to learn about how this culture operates,” said Lipschultz. “Their day-to-day rituals, their religious beliefs, their very different understanding of gender norms compared to progressive or secular society.
“But there still are a lot of commonalities between the Hasidim and everyone else on this planet. The movie is sort of endeavoring to try to show as different as these people seem from the rest of us, even as different as they seem from most American Jews, ultimately there is far more they have in common with us than is different.
“I’ve personally shown it in China, Scotland, Germany and the Czech Republic. People everywhere seem to get it. They all can relate to it in their own way. It’s a film that has a lot of universal themes.”
Beyond the display of ultra-Orthodox rules and rituals, “Menashe” breaks through loud and clear with the humanism of its characters. Lustig plays a widower trying to maintain custody of his son in a society requiring a mother figure at home. He takes some cues from a rabbi — showing his own humanity – who does him a favor by declaring to attendees at a memorial service that Menashe’s severely-burnt kugel actually is delectable.
Interestingly, Lipschultz’s description of growing up in one of the Chicago area’s most affluent Jewish communities connects him with Menashe’s refusal to automatically consent to an arranged second marriage, just so he can keep custody of middle-school son Rieven, charmingly played by Ruben Niborski. Lustig is a widower with a teen-age son in real life, so the narrative drew from his autobiography.
“I always felt a little bit out of step in the Jewish suburbs,” Lipschultz said. “When you look at people who work in the arts, they all felt out of place growing up. You find very few people who have comfortable, contented upbringings who go into the arts or become artists.
“The kind of driving theme behind the entire movie is a question of how much Menashe is willing to compromise his own individuality to make his life easier for himself or fit in better in his community. It’s definitely a universal struggle and those in the arts feel that struggle more acutely.”
Lipschultz cites the lifestyle portrayed in the Robert Redford-directed “Ordinary People,” a 1980 release starring Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moor and set in a more gentile Lake Forest, as not dissimilar to the Jewish North Shore.
“The people in that neighborhood, they’re good people, they’re smart people, they have very good moral fiber, but people’s priorities can get muddled in that world. There’s certainly a very high degree of competition between everybody that starts with the parents and filters down to the kids. I remember being at youth sports events as a kid, 6-year-olds playing and parents screaming at the kids or yelling at the umpires about bad calls. There’s not a lot of margin for error in that community.”
Lipschultz got even more potential future film material in fifth grade at Braeside School in Highland Park.
“I ran for class president twice,” he said. “It became comically competitive and underhanded with a bunch of 10-year-olds. By the end of the year, all the people who’d been elected (as student body officers) were girls. The school was majority female. No little girls were voting for little boys, and no little boys were working for little girls. It was just random demographics.
“You have a community that by and large has an over-sampling of high achievers – CEOs, major businessmen, accomplished physicians. They don’t fall into their positions out of dumb luck. It’s a lot of hard work, certainly a certain degree of connections, upbringing and education.”
Lipschultz described his upbringing as a “pretty straightforward, Reform Jewish background.” Then and now, the Lipschultz family was a member of Temple Jeremiah in Northfield.
“My parents (Stephen and Leslie Lipschultz) both kept kosher in their houses growing up, and they and their parents eventually abandoned that,” he said. “When my generation came around, we didn’t keep kosher. But I went to Sunday school from probably age 5 to 16. I went to Hebrew school twice a week for a handful of years starting in fifth grade. I was bar mitzvahed (in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands). I thought of myself as a moderately religious person.”
Later in high school, Lipschultz described himself as possessing “a lot more rational questions about the nature of religion and the nature of G-d.” He became less religious, limiting synagogue attendance to the High Holidays.
“Culturally I am Jewish, having been raised in that world,” he said. “I definitely never set out as a writer-producer that I’m going to make a Jewish movie. But it was always something that interested me. For a while I was exploring making a film about the bagel bakers’ union in lower Manhattan in the early 1900s.”
After graduating from Highland Park High School, Lipschultz attended film school at Boston University. There, he met Brooklyn native Joshua Weinstein, who would eventually collaborate as director on “Menashe.”
But to make his own mark, Lipschultz had to run the gauntlet through the old studio system with lower-level jobs at Warner Bros., Universal and Sony Pictures. He was given the boot several times, including on Jewish comic actor-director Seth Rogen’s much-panned 2011 revival of “The Green Hornet.”
Lipschultz went out on his own with four independent productions. All the while, Weinstein kicked around the idea of basing a moving on the life of Lustig, whom he had gotten to known poking around the Hasidic community in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn. Weinstein pitched the idea to Lipschultz.
“Neither of us are experts on (Hasidic culture) now,” he said. “What was informative and instructive was meeting people in this community and learning their stories and daily customs. It was more field research than academic research.
“Undoubtedly, many of them did not really consider us Jewish, at least starting off. It was really about remaining diligent and telling people we’re very open to meeting them. It was about building a network.”
Lipschultz credited as a helpful go-between an associate producer named Danny Finkelman, who grew up Hasidic, but not at the level of Lustig.
“Danny is like a fixture in the community in Brooklyn,” he said. “He produces a lot of music videos, concerts and albums in that world. Having him on the team as sort of like a gatekeeper was essential. People knew that if Danny was saying you should sit down with Alex and Josh, we had some credibility and were not out to make just a ‘hit piece’ as a lot of films and articles are critical of the community.”
Lipschultz said he was surprised by the number of regulations ruled over by ultra-Orthodox rabbis, varying every “couple of blocks” in Brooklyn. Even the scrupulously observant Menashe throws up his hands in the film to protest, “Must the rabbis meddle in everything?”
“One-third of their conversations are debates about how to interpret this or that?” Lipschultz said. “Is it OK to use cell phones? If it’s OK to use cell phones, is it OK to use a smart phone or only an old ‘dumb’ phone?”
The central theme of the movie is Menashe’s custodial tug-of-war with relatives, with whom son Rieven is staying in the absence of a wife in his household. He is told a wife is necessary to “run the house…keep the house clean…and (run) a pious home.”
Anything the movie says is almost exclusively in Yiddish, the predominant language of the Hasidic community. Lipschultz discovered some residents were not tri-lingual with English not augmenting Yiddish, used for everyday language, and the Hebrew employed in synagogue. Menashe’s only English dialogue is during a common meeting-in-the-middle, letting one’s hair down session with Hispanic co-workers in the Orthodox-owned grocery store in which he works as a clerk for a tough boss.
Amazingly, the Yiddish works with sub-titles if a viewer has grown up in a home with immigrant roots, and has picked up some of the language through osmosis. Yiddish words have migrated into the English language, and English terms are outright employed in Yiddish in the dialogue.
Again, Lipschultz has gone against the grain of Hollywood convention.
“Maybe in the 1970s, you would have found a way to make this as a studio movie,” he said. “It would not have been in Yiddish. In this day and age, no studio would touch a movie like this. Making it independently was the only way.
“For most films in America, if you’re not in English, it’s game over. The market in America for sub-titled films has dwindled to essentially nothing. Even most foreign filmmakers who reach a certain level of professional acclaim sooner or later decide they’re going to make their movies in English. They know if they don’t, there’s going to be a cap on what kind of worldwide audience they’re going to get.
“But the primary purpose of making this movie was to make something that felt authentic, to use real Hasidic people as a slice-of-life story that was both intellectually and emotionally honest. It had to be in Yiddish. In most households, at work they’re not speaking to each other in English.”
Even though he was born and raised in New York state, Lustig himself did not learn English until his late 20s.
“There is a fairly small portion of the Hasidic community in America that does not speak English because they do not deal with the outside world,” Lipschultz said. “In many ways they resemble a (first-generation) immigrant community than anything else.
“Even from a business perspective as a producer, I felt doing a film in Yiddish could be seen as a selling point. If we made this movie in English, it was never going to gross $50 million, $100 million. At the small level we made it at, let’s do this right. As I predicted and hoped for, the fact it’s made in Yiddish is a talking point.”
And that’s exactly what will help Lipschultz long-term. “Menashe” could be just the kind of project Lipschultz uses as a springboard into filmmaking’s big leagues.
“I’m 33 now, still fairly young,” he said. “This is the fifth year in a row I’ve had a new movie appear at Sundance to (varying amount of) acclaim. Certainly none have made tens of millions of dollars, and never will in any scenario. But they’ve all done pretty well for themselves.
“I’ve definitely reached the point as a producer where I need to scale up the size of these films, and getting to three a year, instead of one. Just for long-term financial sustainability. That’s the point where everybody reaches as a writer, producer, director in the business. You get older, you need more money and you have to start scaling up.
“This film is going to be profitable enough for the investors and the crew,” he said. “Nobody’s going to become a millionaire off the film. But this being the fifth film I have, it is definitely opening more doors.
“People start to sense a track record of being somebody who gets quality movies made on a consistent basis. It just becomes a question of finding a way to continue making movies I feel that are just as intelligent enough and authentic enough to be satisfying to me personally while continuing to scale them up in terms of size, budget and potential audience.”
And if that happens, Lipschultz will diverge from his star “Menashe” character. He won’t be the put-upon producer anymore, fighting the system. Or maybe he’ll create his own system.