In a unique Sukkot celebration, two communities meet on the South Side of Chicago: African-Americans who live in the inner-city neighborhood of Englewood amid conditions of poverty and violence, and Jews who are coming from elsewhere to visit, some for the first time.
The community leader shaking the holiday’s characteristic yellow citron and green palm frond, or lulav and etrog, is an African-American Jew. Her name is Tamar Manasseh, and she is a mother and founder of the volunteer group Mothers and Men Against Senseless Killings, or MASK. In 2016, responding to deadly violence in Chicago, Manasseh and MASK began sitting down at an Englewood street corner, at 75th St. and Stewart Ave., hoping that peaceful neighborhood gatherings would deter violence there.
For three years, not a single shooting occurred on this street corner. Community members got together on a regular basis to provide food and a safe environment for children. A vacant lot became a place with a rain shelter and benches, hosting not only Fourth of July cookouts but also celebrations for Sukkot and Passover. Here, African-American community members learned more about Manasseh’s religion, and she got to use her knowledge from rabbinical studies at Chicago’s historic Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, a Black Hebrew Israelite synagogue led by Rabbi Capers Funnye.
Manasseh’s initiative is now the subject of a documentary, “They Ain’t Ready for Me,” by director Brad Rothschild, which made its world premiere at the New York Jewish Film Festival on January 23.
In a phone interview with The Times of Israel, Manasseh called the film “a story that needs to be told.”
“It’s not just [about] me,” she said — although she quipped that sometimes, when she watches the film, “I worry, ‘Oh my God, she is so cool, I want to meet her.’”
The same happened for filmmaker Rothschild several years ago when he read an article about Manasseh: “I immediately felt I wanted to make a film about her,” he said.
Rothschild’s resume includes working for the Israeli mission to the UN as communications director and as a speechwriter during the 1990s. He has gone on to make documentary films, including “African Exodus,” about African asylees in Israel, and “Tree Man,” about Christmas tree vendors in New York City.
He reached out to Manasseh, but scheduling a meeting wasn’t easy. One day, Manasseh sent a social media message to Rothschild, who is based in New York. She was on Staten Island and asked if he wanted to meet.
“I dropped what I was doing and went over to meet her,” Rothschild recalled. “[At] the end of the conversation, she looked at me and said, ‘OK, if you want to do this, you can do this.’”
Manasseh was convinced by Rothschild’s open-mindedness. “He just wanted to know more about me,” she said. “My life, my family, how I think, how the world works for me, my whole story, not just my Jewish story.”
She said that with previous interviewers who were Jewish and white, “it was always this question: ‘How are you Jewish? Why? Why would you choose this when it’s already hard to be black and female?’” With Rothschild, she said, “we never had a conversation like that at all… It was not ‘let me try to dissect your Judaism.’”
She recalled that instead, “He said, ‘I think you’re cool. I find you fascinating. I really want to make a movie.’ He was just as interested in what was going on in the community as in what I do on Shabbat morning at my temple.”
The film reflects this. Rothschild does bring the camera to Beth Shalom B’Nai Zaken to interview Manasseh and head Rabbi Funnye, a cousin of former first lady Michelle Obama. He also accompanies Manasseh and her mother on a poignant road trip to the Carolinas in search of their family roots. But the filmmaker focuses on the corner of 75th and Stewart.
“We were not acting,” Manasseh said. “Sometimes I was aware the cameras were there, for the most part I was trying to forget… It’s real life, messy, complicated.” She has to intervene when the police bring a group of children accused of shoplifting into a cruiser. She gets the police to release them, escorts them home, and tries to find out what happened.
Manasseh notes that “everybody is happy the film was told. It’s not about poor black people. It’s about family, building community, a true story.”
The community gathers on a once-vacant lot provided by the city. “When we first started, it was trash-infested,” Manasseh recalls. “It was just terrible. We did a lot of excavating so when you would walk through, you would not get hurt.”
The reclamation project included building a shelter to give respite from inclement weather, which neighborhood volunteers built in one day.
“People in the community, if you offer something better, they’ll take it,” Manasseh said. “Nobody was ever offered anything better.” And, she added, “it belongs to us. There’s a great sense of ownership.”
Manasseh said she is working on other projects, which do not appear in the film — a pizza parlor “further south, in another neighborhood,” and on the current space, a school to offer educational opportunities in the wake of the city’s closure of all public schools in the neighborhood. “I’m focusing on the school,” she said.
The film shows the impact of the shelter. Community members use it to stay dry from the rain, although Manasseh makes several youngsters leave temporarily because they have been misbehaving. The seating space expands through benches. Eventually it is the site for a sukkah — the temporary hut in which meals are taken and time spent during the fall Sukkot holiday — as well as a Passover seder in the spring.
“I think that both the Sukkot and Passover scenes are really, really pivotal in the film,” Rothschild said, “because it really shows how Tamar brings Judaism to this neighborhood, to a community where people don’t necessarily see Jews all the time,” while “groups outside the neighborhood” come in for both celebrations.
“To me, I think it’s the best PR that Judaism can possibly have within this community,” Rothschild said. “People at 75th and Stewart see Tamar and see other Jews coming. They see something of the joy in Judaism, the ritual, the family. They also see people doing mitzvot [Jewish commandments], the very clear link between Judaism and doing good. I really think that’s the importance of those two scenes.”
Manasseh leads ceremonies on both occasions. “I’ve been rabbi-ing without a license all the time,” she said.
According to Manasseh, she has “no timeline” for ordination from authorities of her African-American denomination, the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, “as long as I am a woman.” She said she finished rabbinical studies after beginning eight years ago.
“I don’t need a piece of paper,” she said. “I came into the world to be a good person.” If she formally receives ordination, she said, it would be “great, I have a spot on the wall for a certificate.” But, she added, “It would not change that I already am what God wanted me to be.”
As a spiritual leader on 75th and Stewart, she explains Judaism to the community — including on Sukkot, which she links to the African-American experience.
“You are in the wilderness, wandering,” she said. “Where are you going to be? Where are you going? What’s your plan? Sukkot is about right now.” And, she said, “Seventy-fifth and Stewart is definitely the wilderness. You don’t have to stay in the wilderness. That’s the beautiful part. We’re building a school, it’s us coming out of the wilderness. We can come out. We don’t have to stay.”
Although not shown in the film, Manasseh said that another important ceremony on the street corner was held on Yom Kippur.
“You can be forgiven,” she explained. “You don’t have to wait to change your life. You can be judged on Yom Kippur and make atonement… Judaism says every year, we have an opportunity to get it right… It’s an amazing thing for them.”
The Yizkor memorial service was particularly powerful for many attendees, including Manasseh.
“Last year, I literally could name one person who I personally knew or who I knew of, who died [each week], for one entire year,” she said. “Fifty-two 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.”
She called the ceremony “so cathartic for a group of people who lose so many, so many people — young adults, sisters, brothers, cousins, mothers.”
Tragically, last year, the peacefulness at 75th and Stewart came to an end with the shooting deaths of two mothers, Chantell Grant and Andrea Stoudemire.
Filming had been completed by then; asked whether Grant or Stoudemire appear in the film, Manasseh said, “No, I don’t think so.” But, she said, “we don’t charge membership — who can afford to be a member of an all-volunteer group? People bring kids here, eat and play with them. Chantell did that. Andrea did not bring her kid over as much as Chantell.”
Manasseh said that their deaths received media attention because they were mothers, and that three months before, two more mothers had been killed three blocks away, but because they were identified as “just young ladies or women, nobody paid attention. The very use of the word ‘mothers’ made them more important.”
“It shouldn’t be that way,” Manasseh said. “Every parent is important, every person is important.”
Asked whether people still come to the gatherings at 75th and Stewart, Manasseh said, “Absolutely, people are still coming. People are still very, very poor. It’s no joke. We can only do so much without support from the government.”
She noted, “Judaism 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 very different thing. It helps us heal, get through, understand our situation better, our Judaism better.”