The Surprising life of a badchan

When the decision was made to interview Menashe Lustig, a well-known comedian, for our Purim edition, it took a while to track him down. I did not know that Lustig was a screen name, and that our elusive comedian is a Skverer yungerman named Moshe Mordechai Loffler.

Before calling Menashe, I watched some clips of his performances, along with my children, who were mesmerized. Lustig is a brilliant actor, with an uncanny ability to portray a wide range of emotions in the span of a few seconds. He has the ability to shed bitter tears, and to open his eyes wide and appear startled, terrified or annoyed, without changing his basic expression. He can be at times bitter, sarcastic or sweet and helpful, depending on the role he’s playing.

One clip shows him surprising his son in camp on visiting day, as an uncle leads the boy to the trunk of the car, where a surprise is waiting for him. The child opens the trunk cautiously, to find his father, twisted like a pretzel, snoring without a care in the world. He opens one eye, winks, and falls asleep again.

In another video, Lustig is an old man, sitting on the couch, muttering about his insomnia and the world in general, combining common words and expressions in a ridiculous Purim shpiel that makes no sense, but is incredibly clever. A moment later, he’s an Englishman, talking shul politics in an accent so authentic that it’s hard to believe it’s the same guy. Ditto for a film on kiruv, where he berates a secular guest for daring to ask too many questions. Some of the clips have Lustig cleaning his car for Pesach at the eleventh hour, doing the ice bucket challenge, and making scrambled eggs with an iron. It’s clear that he’s a maestro, bringing his audience to tears of emotion and laughter at the flick of a switch.

How did he achieve this rare gift? Did he study professionally, or was he self-taught? And where is he focusing his talent these days? I had plenty of questions for Lustig, if only I was able to find him first.

Never fear. We finally reached Lustig as he was busy preparing for the annual Purim play that takes place on Motzoei Purim at the Skverer Rebbe’s tish. Lustig, who slips comfortably into numerous rules, is first and foremost a chassidishe yungerman who upholds his firm standards, and who strives always to be mesameiach Yidden, to make people laugh and forget their tzaros for a while.

So, Mr. Lustig, er, Mr. Loffler, what’s with the name? Where does Menashe Lustig come from?

No special place. It’s a name I invented, because it’s short, smooth, and easily remembered. Menashe sounds a bit like Moshe Mordechai, if you use your imagination. And, of course, Lustig is Yiddish for lebedig and happy.

Can you tell us about yourself?

Sure. I turned 39 years old on the seventh of Adar, so I have a special connection to the month of simcha. That’s why my name is Mordechai.

I was raised in a double-digit family of fourteen children. Six of us were given the gift of humor, of finding simcha in ordinary situations, while the rest have other gifts. Ironically, my sister who is married to Lipa Shmelczer is actually quite serious.

I grew up in Skver, or New Square, an insulated community located just a few miles from Monsey that was founded by the previous Skverer Rebbe over forty years ago. I was a regular cheder yingel, though a bit more lebedig than most, and I used my humor and charm to get out of trouble with my rebbi. At home, it was easy to blend in and not be noticed. After all, there were so many of us. My mother had her hands full just getting us fed and our clothes washed. There are many advantages of growing up in such a large family. My siblings and I are very close. For me, in my current situation, it’s wonderful to have such a great support system.

Do you live in Skver today?

Yes. I live in Skver now. I moved here nine years ago, after the tragedy that turned my life upside down. In my early twenties – an alter bochur by Skverer standards – I was engaged to a wonderful girl from London, where we moved after our wedding. Three years later, my wife and I were blessed with a beautiful little boy, the light and joy of my life.

When our son was four years old, my wife went to the hospital for a minor, routine procedure. It should have been an outpatient appointment, and she was scheduled to come home that day. However, something went seriously wrong, and during the procedure she suffered a blood clot. I was at her side when she started complaining of severe pain. I called the nurse to come quickly, and she summoned the doctor, but it was too late. My wife lost consciousness and passed away a few moments later from a fatal blood clot. I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.

Do you want to talk about the aftermath?

My wife passed away nearly a decade ago, but we haven’t moved on. You don’t recover from such a sudden tragedy, especially since I have not yet found my zivug sheini and I am still alone. I am currently looking for a shidduch and can be reached through the Yated.

After my wife’s petirah, I went through a very hard time. I moved back to Skver with my son, because we needed the support of my family and the community where I had grown up. I didn’t have any relatives in London, aside from my late wife’s family members, and I saw no future there.

For my son, the sun stopped shining the day his mother left. For many months, he kept asking where Mommy was, and when she was coming home. He couldn’t process the idea of death; he couldn’t fathom that he would no longer see her in this lifetime.

After weeks of crying for her and waiting for her to come home, he became very quiet. He didn’t talk much, but he would wake up crying, nearly every night. I knew he needed help, so I found an excellent therapist who deals with children who have gone through a traumatic loss.

Boruch Hashem, after a couple of years, I got my son back. He is still very quiet, not like his father, and he doesn’t do humor at all. He just became bar mitzvah a few months ago and is in yeshiva in Skver. On Shabbos and Yom Tov, he boards with a local family that has sons his age, which is healthy for his development. We are very close and spent time together nearly every day.

What do you do for parnassah?

For several years, I worked in the Skverer grocery as a day job, while writing scripts for plays and grammen on the side. But my main job, and my passion, is making people laugh. I have always enjoyed comedy, and my late wife encouraged me to pursue this. In fact, just a few hours before her sudden petirah, as I sat at her side in the hospital, I spoke about my hobby, and she encouraged me to pursue it full-time. I had no idea that this would be our last conversation, that she would be taken from us so soon. Yet her encouragement of my career is a source of chizuk to me.

Nowadays, I spend most of my time writing scripts, acting in commercials and plays, utilizing the talents the Ribono Shel Olam gave me. There are dozens of clips of my performances, from short commercials to longer productions, from Purim shpiels to parodies of real life. I constantly hear from people how much chizuk it gives them.

Though I am comfortable assuming various roles and costumes, I refuse to appear in an environment that compromises my standards. I am proud to be a part of the Skverer community, to join the actors at the rebbe’s Purim play, and would never betray my principles for money or fame. I have received many offers from the non-Jewish world of theater, but I turned them down.

What have you done over the years to develop your talent?

I have never gone to school or studied theater professionally. Yiddish is my first language, and I don’t speak English fluently. Whatever talent I have is G-d given, cultivated from many years of experience. By now, I can read my audience and sense what they are interested in hearing, what makes them tick. I don’t need to prepare for most of my roles. I just need to read the lines once and I already know what’s expected of me.

I think the key to being a good actor is to be in touch with your deepest emotions by living fully in the moment. You actually have to internalize that part.

What is your goal?

To serve Hashem, to bring Him nachas, to raise my son and enable him to find his own strengths. I would like to get married again to the right person who understands and respects my acting career, as well as my roots and values.

In the meantime, I try my best to make brokenhearted people happy. I spend a lot of time in hospitals, at the bedside of seriously ill patients who haven’t smiled in a long time. When I leave, they’re usually doubled over with laughter. It’s so nice to see their faces light up, to hear from the doctors how much my humor has accomplished. When I can use my talents to help a fellow Jew, that gives me the greatest satisfaction and joy.