Vanessa Hidary is a Syrian-American actor, poet and writer from the Upper West Side. She wrote and has toured nationally with her one-person show, “Culture Bandit,” about fostering understanding between people from different backgrounds. Part of “Culture Bandit” is the poem “Hebrew Mamita,” which Hidary wrote after going through life being told that she doesn’t look Jewish. The phrase has become her nickname and calling card. Hidary’s work has appeared in HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and in Central Park’s Summerstage.
I fell in love with her work after seeing her performance in a short film, “The Tribe,” and I spoke recently to The Hebrew Mamita about her life and her work.
So you grew up on the Upper West Side but didn’t feel Jewish — I find that interesting as the UWS is a hotbed of Judaism. Do you know why you never felt such a connection to Judaism?
I definitely felt a connection when I was younger, it just wasn’t so strong. It’s become more of a hotbed of Judaism in the past 10 years, but I think of the Upper West Side when I grew up in it as a multicultural area. My parents came to the Upper West Side when it was very transitional. I went to public school and had always felt different than people at school; I went to Hebrew school too and also felt different there. So I felt a connection to Judaism, which led to my current career, but I was more involved in being a New Yorker and exploring. I never felt like I fit into Hebrew school because I was different; it turned me off since I never fit into that. I felt like I wasn’t the typical Jewish kid — lots of kids in my generation felt that. So it’s not that I had no connection, just that it wasn’t my only focus. I was Reform so we celebrated the holidays but didn’t really keep Shabbat.
Are you still Reform?
I don’t really like giving myself a title; I don’t belong to a temple. I do Judaism in my own way. I do holidays and fast on Yom Kippur, but I don’t go to temple often. My career makes me more Jewish. I pray in my own way, but I’m not observant in the typical way of things.
How did you get into poetry and performance art?
I started out with acting. I wanted to be an actor so I got my master’s degree in acting in Rhode Island [Trinity Rep Theatre Conservatory; she also attended LaGuardia High School for the Arts and Hunter College], but I had no idea what my route would be. There were several theaters in the area and I was drawn to writing, but never thought that a combination between the two was possible. In grad school I wrote my own material. Afterwards, it was hard for me to cast myself — I felt like I couldn’t fit into a box of a specific type of actor since I’m an urban Jewish girl with a different personality and charm. I performed monologues and people were interested in my voice, my story. I saw a poetry show and I knew this was it, what I was meant to do: hip hop and rhyme and social justice. I also saw women of different shapes and colors and sizes, which I really felt comfortable with since I never felt like I had to be a perfect thing or fit into a pretty girl mold. So I wrote my first poem with “Baruch ata Adonai, viva Puerto Rico haolam, hamotzi fight the power min ha’aretz.” And people were listening, and I saw I had an interesting story that people — Jewish and not Jewish — wanted to hear, people started responding. I wrote “Hebrew Mamita,” a one-person show, and the rest is history.
About “Hebrew Mamita” — what was your inspiration? Was it really a boyfriend who thought you didn’t look Jewish?
It was many incidents — the feeling of my whole life, my personal struggle of being the only Jewish girl around and not feeling like I own that. I ended up embracing Jewish stereotypes, which really disturbed me. People irritated me when they would say that I don’t look Jewish. My friends went through revolutions for their own cultures, be it black or Hispanic or Dominican or what, so I examined my own history to be proud of my roots. Those communities influenced who I am. I wrote “Hebrew Mamita” as a breakout piece to prove that I can be Jewish and proud and love other cultures. People feel that to blend in you have to be something you’re not. I wrote that piece for everyone. More of my performances of it aren’t for Jews since the piece is for all people who are in a culture and can relate to not feeling a part of it sometimes. I also perform it outside of the Jewish community because [non-Jews] don’t usually hear pride in being Jewish.
I know Matisyahu has gotten some negative feedback from the Jewish community for singing for the masses, but I disagree with that view because I think Matisyahu is giving people a positive taste of Judaism when they wouldn’t usually get it. Is that kind of what you feel?
It’s important to show that Jews are of many different styles. I feel it’s my journey, my calling, to do so. In my upbringing I struggled over feeling not so traditional. I still feel like I don’t fit in all the time, but I feel like this was what I was supposed to do. It might p— people off, but I can deal.
I was first introduced to “Hebrew Mamita” through the short film “The Tribe” and got chills when I first heard it. How did you get involved with “The Tribe”?
I attended Reboot, which is a Jewish think tank. We go to Utah and we talk about being Jewish and stuff like that, and I met Tiffany Shlain, the director of “The Tribe” there. She had been working on it for a while and she felt it was missing something and that “Hebrew Mamita” could fill that void, and it did. It was an amazing experience; we went to festivals for “The Tribe” and everything.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people out there who struggle with their identities?
There are a lot of people who feel like you out there — there’s no right way to be who you are. It’s hard because the community enforces rules, but I believe there’s a place for all of us, even though not everyone is gonna do it the same way. If you just talk about your struggle with identity for long enough, you’ll find people who connect. I had no idea so many people had their own conflicts about identity. You just have to tell your story.
Some of Vanessa Hidary’s work is racy and the language inappropriate, so watch at your own discretion.