In 2015, a young mother was shot and killed while breaking up a fight on the corner of 75th and South Stewart Avenue on Chicago’s South Side. The killing was one too many for Tamar Manasseh, the young mother of two sons. Her response to the tragedy was simple yet revolutionary: She sat on the corner that summer and rallied the community around her.
In the heart of Chicago’s ghetto, 75th Street and South Stewart Avenue has long been considered to be located in one of the city’s most unsafe neighborhoods. According to Manasseh, the danger springs from ongoing poverty, unemployment, drugs and the rampant violence that inevitably occurs under those conditions. And so she sat to make her presence visible and her love known on what became her corner lot.
Until the coronavirus pandemic hit, Manasseh, the founder of Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings (MASK), sat on the corner, weather permitting, with her volunteers. She channeled the hospitality of the biblical Abraham and Sarah as she doled out food and advice in equal measure. Her sit-in is a radical act of hope—an act her Judaism informs and supports. In the four years that Manasseh and her crew have been active, she points out that the police have never been summoned. Violent crime has virtually disappeared on “Manasseh’s block.”
As if Manasseh is not impressive enough, she is also a 42-year-old rabbinical student. Filmmaker Brad Rothschild portrays her as a modern-day prophet in “They Ain’t Ready for Me.” The new documentary had been screening at Jewish film festivals and is now making its way virtually across the country. Rothschild and Manasseh recently participated in a Q&A sponsored by the Manhattan-based Marlene Myerson JCC film department.
Rothschild recalled that he courted Manasseh to be the subject of his film for over a year. She finally put aside her reluctance and allowed him to follow her around with his camera. They initially got to know each other over a two-hour conversation on Manasseh’s back porch. Rothschild’s resume includes working in the 1990s for the Israeli mission to the United Nations as the communications director and speechwriter. His documentaries include “African Exodus,” a film about Israel’s African asylum seekers, and “Tree Man,” a consideration of Christmas tree vendors in New York City.
Manasseh is a magnetic, determined leader. She captures a listener’s attention with her take on tikkun olam and how her Judaism is a “constant source of inspiration. Everything emanates from my Judaism, and I fight for it every moment of my life.” Animating Manasseh’s fight is her answer to a question Black and white Jews often pose to her: How can you be Black and Jewish? Her response is a striking one, albeit one that may be tough to hear. At the Q&A, Manasseh said the “Black-Jewish relationship is broken.” She noted that while Abraham Heschel and Martin Luther King’s iconic friendship is still inspiring 60 years out, she wonders aloud why white Jews are more comfortable with Black people who are not Jews than with their Black sisters and brothers.
Manasseh is also an expansive leader. She visibly practices Judaism in the vacant lot on 75th Street and South Stewart Avenue. On Sukkot, she teaches neighborhood regulars about the “Holiday of Booths” and Jewish survival under hard conditions, all while linking it to the African American experience. “Jewish survival is an inspiration,” she said. “We can survive—that’s what we do better than anybody else. I took that spirit of survival to that corner.” She also took a lulav (palm frond) and etrog (citron), and Rothschild trains his camera on the future rabbi making the traditional blessing over these Sukkot accoutrements.
Not shown in the film is Manasseh presiding over a Yom Kippur service on her block. In an interview she gave last February to The Times of Israel, Manasseh said the Yizkor service was particularly powerful and meaningful for those in attendance. She told the paper: “I literally could name one person who I knew or who I knew of, who died [each week], for one entire year—52 people I knew. One person I knew of died yesterday. Most people in Black neighborhoods can do that. That’s a whole lot of Yizkor, a whole lot of remembrance.”
Through the winter and into the spring, remembrance remains front and center on Manasseh’s corner as she plans a large Passover seder for the neighborhood. In the film, she says that freedom “means something very different for Black people on the street corner. You got free, but never left Egypt. Pharaohs are all around us every day. It’s a different thing. It helps us heal, get through, understand our situation better, our Judaism better.”
Rothschild also brings his camera to Manasseh’s synagogue, Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, where she leads services and reads Torah. Her rabbi, Capers Funnye, the cousin of former First Lady Michelle Obama, makes a couple of cameo appearances in the film. Rothschild shines a light on Manasseh’s ongoing effort to become ordained by the International Israelite Board of Rabbis. If successful, she would be the first woman rabbi in that community. At the moment, her ordination is scheduled for this October. However, with or without formal credentials, there is no doubt that Manasseh is the rabbi of Chicago’s South Side.
In these pandemic times, Manasseh said she is working “to avert the educational crisis when corona hit.” On her corner, she’s supervising the building of makeshift school buildings constructed from shipping containers. She is fundraising to buy the kids in her neighborhood iPads and laptops so they can access distance learning. She stated the key to her success: “I don’t see problems; I see cracks that can be fixed with the right tools.”
Learn more about the film here.