With the sound turned down, Vanessa Hidary’s performance on HBO’s "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry" looks a lot like the other stand-up poets: accentuated with aggressive hand gestures and straight-faced sincerity.
But at full volume, Hidary stands out.
"I’m the Hebrew Mamita, the long-lost daughter of Abraham and Sarah, the sexy oy-veying, chutzpah-having, non-conspiricizing, always-questioning, hip hop-listening, Torah scroll-reading, all-people-loving (pause) pride-filled Jewish girl," she says at the end of her spoken-word poem "Hebrew Mamita."
And as she strides off the stage, the audience explodes in applause.
"Most people are not used to seeing people express themselves as Jews in such an unapologetic manner," the 32-year-old New Yorker tells The Jewish Week.
And listeners have been giving Hidary "a lot of love." Two years after she started performing spoken-word pieces in the lobby of Chelsea’s Center Stage theater, she’s starting a second run of her solo show "Culture Bandit." (See listings on page 44.) The show, about growing up Jewish in the ‘hood, has been optioned for a feature film in the mold of the blockbuster movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
Hidary, the daughter of two public school teachers, still lives near P.S. 166 on 89th Street. "That’s really what made me," she says of her alma mater in the demographically diverse neighborhood.
"I was known as ‘the white girl that’s down,’ " Hidary says of her youth in the days of early hip hop and shell-top Adidas sneakers. But in the late 1980s, her identity evaporated as the music turned political and her former friends began to focus on ethnic distinctions.
"Even fashion started to change," says Hidary, a Hunter College graduate with a master’s degree in acting. "It had gone from the whole gold-chain look to an ethnic pride kind of fashion thing" complete with dreadlocks, head wraps and African medallions.
Left out of the old crowd, Hidary eventually overcame her shame of being Jewish. Hidary, the descendant of a prestigious Sephardi family from Aleppo, Syria, hopes to use her street credibility as a counterweight to Jewish stereotypes.
Today Hidary sports her own emblem of ethnic pride, an inch-and-a-half long hamsa pendant. "I got my own thing to represent," she says.