By Brad Rothschild, a documentary filmmaker in New York City. The trailer for his upcoming film on Tamar Manasseh, They Ain’t Ready for Me, can be seen here.
It’s no secret that the scourge of gun violence has reached epidemic proportions across the United States. And after every mass shooting, NRA talking points unfailingly point to gun violence in Chicago as an example of how gun regulation doesn’t work. After all, they say, Chicago’s gun laws are among the strictest in the country, yet it has one of the highest murder rates in the US. What this argument fails to address are the underlying causes of murder in Chicago’s inner city – poverty, joblessness, mass incarceration and institutionalized racism. Additionally, the threat of sending federal troops into Chicago, an idea that is constantly being floated by national politicians who have absolutely no willingness to confront the reality on the ground, looms over the inner city like a dark and ominous cloud.
Into this breach steps Tamar Manasseh, a vivacious, self-assured and magnetic mother of two. Every day, Tamar sits on the corner of 75th Street and South Stewart Avenue in the Englewood section of Chicago. This is the heart of the ghetto, where poverty, unemployment, addiction, and violence relentlessly plague the neighborhood and its residents. For years, this has been considered one of the “worst” neighborhoods in the city, and people get shot on the streets with depressing regularity. Politicians across the political spectrum rail against the violence yet fail to offer real solutions.
In 2015, a young mother was shot and killed trying to break up a fight on this very corner. For Tamar Manasseh, this was one senseless killing too many. Tired of waiting for somebody else to do something, Tamar took the situation into her own hands. She did something simple yet revolutionary – she sat down on the corner and hasn’t left since. Each day she sits on the block, grilling hamburgers and hot dogs, blasting music, and bringing games for kids to play with. In the nearly five years that Tamar and her organization Mothers and Men Against Senseless Killings (MASK) has been active there, violent crime has almost disappeared on this block.
But Tamar Manasseh is more than just a concerned mother – she’s a 41 year-old black rabbinical student. Her unique background and upbringing give her a perspective that few people can claim. Tamar credits her Judaism for her activism: “Jewish people don’t see problems, we see cracks that need fixing,” she likes to say. To her, gun violence is just another crack to be fixed, albeit a pretty big one.
As a Jew and an African American Tamar brings an understanding of both of these communities, even as she struggles for acceptance in each one. For years, Tamar has been trying to get ordained as a rabbi by the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, but the powers that be are resistant; after all, she is a woman and there has never been a woman rabbi in this stream of Judaism. But in many ways Tamar is already a rabbi – she’s held Yom Kippur services, Passover Seders, and Sukkoth celebrations on the block. As a matter of course she settles disputes, dispenses advice and welcomes all guests with a smile and a meal.
Within the Jewish world, however, Tamar is looked at as an outsider, someone whose identity is constantly questioned even as her approach to fighting gun violence is lauded. The paradox is that while she credits her Judaism as the source of her activism and she claims many Jews as supporters, she is kept at arm’s length by the mainstream (white) Jewish community. But Jewish groups do come to visit her on the block to see first hand the good that she and MASK are doing and she regularly addresses synagogues and Jewish community centers in the Chicago area and beyond. .
I first read about Tamar Manasseh in 2016 and immediately knew that she would make a great subject for a documentary film. After many months of pleading, I convinced her that I should be the one who tells her story and since that time I have had the privilege of seeing first hand the incredible work that Tamar is doing, day in and day out. Tamar’s unwavering commitment to the people of this neighborhood shows in everything that she does. While she’s deservedly gained local and national recognition for her work, it’s when the award ceremonies are done and the media is gone, that Tamar’s commitment is most pronounced – when she prepares food in her kitchen for 100 people, when she manages crises in the middle of the night or sweeps the sidewalks the morning after a block party. God, as they say, is in the details.
What struck me while making this film was the role that grassroots activists can play when local, state and national institutions fail to address the basic needs of their constituents. America is rapidly becoming a failed state, something that can be acutely felt in places like Chicago’s inner city. In the current social and political climate where women are increasingly making their voices heard and where the struggle for women’s rights has become a unifying force, could it be that this black Jewish woman is the one person who can show us a way out of the mess that we’re in?