‘My work is definitely not just for Jewish people,” says 32-year-old spoken-word-poet/actor/dramatist Vanessa Hidary, better known as the “Hebrew Mamita.” “Most of my performances are in front of non-Jews — that’s where my work can make a difference.” Though she may have been raised on the Upper West Side, Hidary is in fact better known to downtown New York’s ethnically diverse theater scene than she is in that neighborhood’s Jewish circles. Says Hidary, “I don’t believe in preaching to the choir.”
Last month, she appeared on the HBO series “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry,” a program popular with black audiences; she has performed her one-woman show, “Culture Bandit,” three times at the hallowed Nuyorican Poets Café, a performance space created by Latino poets in 1974; and “Culture Bandit” has recently been optioned for a screenplay by an up-and-coming production company. One senses that Hidary, almost inevitably, is going places.
Crossing cultural boundaries — but always as a Jew — is the main theme of her work. In her Def Poetry performance, Hidary, sporting cascading brunette locks, a skimpy blue halter top and hoop earrings, recites a poem about being hit on by a guy in a bar who discovers that she’s a member of the tribe. “‘You’re Jewish? Wow! You don’t look Jewish,’” she recites in staccato free verse, punctuating words with her raised hand, in the macho style of a rap artist. “‘You don’t act Jewish!’ And he says it in this tone that sounds like he’s complimenting me.” But the poem isn’t a righteous screed, it’s about Hidary’s own weakness: “And I say, and I say… nothing,” Hidary continues, “Which combined with a flirtly smile translates to ‘Thank you.’”
It is a powerful, winning moment, one very much at the heart of Hidary’s own lack, and later discovery, of Jewish pride. Hidary enjoyed a happy Manhattan childhood — her parents were progressive public school teachers; her friends were of all backgrounds; and though her family, descendants of Syrian Sephardim, weren’t deeply religious, Hidary went to Hebrew school and was bat-mitzvahed. But once she reached the “Fame school,” the La Guardia High School of the Arts, she began to realize that being Jewish “wasn’t really cool… I started to become ashamed of it. If you had told me 10 years ago that [Judaism] was going to be a big part of my career, I would have thought you were crazy,” she said in an interview with the Forward.
Unconsciously, Hidary began to accept “compliments” for not seeming Jewish, until years later, when a post-college trip to Israel helped deepen her grasp of her own background. In the aforementioned poem, Hidary visits the Western Wall: “I place folded paper with written prayers for the dead in a nook,” she recites, as she kisses her clenched fist, “in a nook in the wall next to a woman with concentration camp numbers tattooed on her forearm. Surrounded by fervent praying and bodies swaying, I am far more awake than I ever thought possible.”
While Hidary’s moving one-woman show, “Culture Bandit,” is less preoccupied with her own Judaism, the autobiographical piece vividly depicts the joy and angst of a white Jewish girl trying to fit in with her black and Latino friends throughout the racially tense 1980s. Hidary does so easily as an adolescent (she acquires the humorous monikers “White Girl Who Is Down” and “Vanna White”), but life grows progressively more complicated. In one of the show’s best moments, a black friend finally tells Hidary to take a hike because she is white.
Hidary rebounds, declaring herself a “culture bandit” who unabashedly claims her Middle Eastern roots, her love of black hip-hop artists, and her connections to her black and Latino friends. As the “Culture Bandit” or the “Hebrew Mamita,” Hidary’s aim is to bridge racial divides. “I can do that poem about being Jewish and someone in a completely different culture can relate to it, according to their experience — ‘You know, someone always told me that I didn’t look Haitian,’ or ‘I didn’t act Indian enough,’” she said. “That’s really my mission.”
No worthy mission, of course, comes without risk. Not everyone gets what Hidary is trying to do — an occasional audience member will approach her after a show and respectfully disagree with her “Zionist” agenda, even though her work doesn’t address Middle East politics. Some Jews feel she overstates the need to trumpet Jewish identity. She admits to feeling the pressure. “Once you’ve had positive experiences you can kind of go off that, but there are still times when I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting ready to do this. I really don’t know how people are going to react,’” she said.
Some of Hidary’s work is not about identity, but it is all pretty fearless. One of her most popular poems has an unprintably raunchy title, which illicits uncomfortable titters from audiences when she announces it. Hidary is so comfortable with her sexuality, however, that those titters soon turn to enthusiastic cheers. Indeed, even when Hidary isn’t talking about sex, her body-hugging outfits and onstage haughtiness give her performances an aura of sexual confidence. That presence is put to good use by Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad, a bawdy sketch comedy troupe that Hidary performs with in New York. The group’s next appearance will be this Saturday at Makor in “The Mensch,” a twisted hybrid of ABC’s television show “The Bachelor” and Fox’s “American Idol,” in which the audience gets to play matchmaker for a nice Jewish boy in search of true love.
Ask Hidary where she wants to go next in her career and you get a surprisingly un-show businesslike answer. “If I had my choice and I could charge people $5 to see my show forever, I would do that…. I don’t even think it would work [on Broadway],” she said. Film may be a different story: Cine Mosaic, a new production company with solid credentials — one of its producers works regularly with acclaimed South Asian director Mira Nair — has optioned “Culture Bandit” for a screenplay.
Although she may be fuzzy on the details of her future, there’s no question that Hidary plans to stick around. “If I had to have a different career, I’d be in big trouble,” she said. “This is what I was meant to do.”
David Thorpe has written for Time Out New York, Jane and New York magazine.