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The Making of a Hebrew Mamita

Vanessa HidaryFilmed at Limmud Conference 2012

Expect a tale of a nice Jewish girl gone awry, love gone wrong and a woman’s search to find her identity and cultural pride in the multi-cultural landscape of her native New York City.

Vanessa Hidary grew up in NYC and is a solo performer/ spoken word artist and native New Yorker.  She has appeared three times on Russell Simmon’s “Def Poetry Jam” on Home Box Office and is featured in the short film “The Tribe”.  Vanessa recently published her first book  “The Last Kaiser Roll in the Bodega”.

Baruch Ata Hashem, viva Puerta Rica haolam, hamotzi Lehem Min Haaretz, Amen. The making of a Hebrew Mamita, the construction of a Jewish girl gone awry or gone straight; however, which way, you choose to see it. Background: I am a half Sephardic Syrian Jew and a half Ashkenazi Russian Jew born and raised and still living on the upper West Side of Manhattan. I grew up with liberal parents who taught public schools in the Bronx for over 26 years. They didn’t believe in private schools, carried channel 13 tote bags, and turned their noses up at poor quality rye bread that lacked a decent crust. I listened to Michael Jackson the Sugar Hill Gang who had the very first hip hop single to become a top 40 hit and Free To Be You and Me, the classic album whose basic concept was to encourage post 1960’s gender neutrality saluting values such as individuality, tolerance and comfort with ones’ identity. A major thematic message was that anyone, whether a boy or girl, can achieve anything. My best friend was Puerto Rican, her father owned the corner of Bodega deli cornerstore where I tasted my very first ham and cheese hero with mayo and yes, I loved it. I celebrated Christmas in her apartment with her big loving family and danced salsa next to the tree. I went to a Reconstructionist Hebrew school 3 times a week after school, where I was 1 of 2 students who didn’t attend private school. I wore the knock off, budget version of the fancy IZAD shirts with the classic alligator emblem. They were called L’tigray and instead had a tiger emblem on them. I went to a Jewish wise sleep away camp where I was a chubby roller disco queen surrounded by Long Island girls with eating disorders and lavish Bat Mitzvahs. On Sundays I went with my family to Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn and ate exotic Syrian treats like Sumbusac and during the week I ate bagels lox and cream cheese or pollo quesado with Dominicans on 88th street. Basically I was, I am a cultural ticking bomb, armed with a half fair bus pass and number 2 pencil my upbringing was extremely beautiful, complicated, unique and challenging for myself and my poor mother who watched me crash into ceilings and situations head on. In high school I wore vintage clothes and wanted to wear a cross around my neck like Madonna did. I became an avid hip hop fan, listened to nationalistic politicised hip hop like Public Enemy, attended police brutality marches and danced in 5 dollar nightclubs with a fake ID. My first boyfriend had a four knuckle gold ring and yes there was that period of time where I deemed it not cool to be Jewish. To be white was one thing but if you were one of those Italian or Yugoslavian white girls from Queens you could celebrate Christmas with your boyfriend and wear a cool Madonna cross. In my search for modern, Jewish, female role models I came up empty. My black and Latino friends joined student unions, celebrated their heritage that I was not a part of, raised their fists in the air and I felt lost along the way. I wrote my college essay about the problem of segregation on campuses and ended up staying in New York and going to Hunter College because I wasn’t ready to leave my beloved New York City. I dated men who thought they were selling out by being with a white girl and then dated a Jewish guy who was an over-zealous vegan, belonged to the anti-tax league and banned me from wearing lipstick with carnuga wax in it. One summer I went to Israel with my sister, met Jews from South Africa and Yemen, went to my first nightclub where everyone wore big Stars of David around their tanned necks, they were hot and cool and proud to be Jewish and I was enchanted, excited and overwhelmed. I discovered I liked acting and went to a tiny MFA programme in Providence Rhode Island and met my first white Anglo Saxon Protestant. I felt very Jewish and very New York and all of a sudden this all felt very good and important to me. I moved back to New York wanting to be Meryl Streep but ended up writing off-beat performance poetry about all this noise inside of me. I am the culture bandit, I eat matzah and Harlem thrown out of Hebrew school because I spent Rosh Hashanah at Porto Rican day parade, rope tease, Mofongo, collard greens and kimchee, gefilte fish, baklava, fried catfish all for me, yeah I eat it all because I’m culturally greedy, by any means necessary the Warsaw Ghetto, the boogie down Bronx, no justice, no peace, Dayenu, Bordiquaz… I named myself the Hebrew Mamita. Researched my heritage, decided Pesach was my favourite holiday and realised there was a voice missing in theatre for Urban Jewish girls form New York city. I intended to fill it and finally became conscious that I can fully love my background along with all the others I had let in. I began performing at small packed poetry venues on the lower east side, did Deaf Poetry Jam at HBO and years later was brought in as keynote speaker for the Jewish Women’s Federation. Yes, you heard that right, after this whole story Jews, real life Jews from federations wanted to listen to me, to this life. I began to realise that I was not alone in my identity wranglings, many Jews and non-jews alike also had similar journeys but my path, my mission was to share it and I did and then I thought about how in every scene I’d been in since a child I could spot what I called the rebel Jew I just hadn’t been paying close attention. I suddenly remembered on my own block on 88th street a plaque stood in honour of a native upper west side Andrew Goodman, who was one of the three American Civil Rights activists murdered near Mississippi during freedom Summer in 1964 by members of the Ku Klux Klan. In the arts there were the Jewish hip hop legends the Beastie Boys, Barbara Streisand who wouldn’t change her nose and the outrageous Bette Midler. There were the humorous who pushed buttons like Lenny Bruce and Jon Stewart and in every liberal campaign and march I saw the names, the Goldstein’s, the Rothstein’s and the Silvers. I remembered my friend who just moved to Berkeley said he didn’t know that most of his flatmates were Jewish because they had just adopted Tibetan names but maybe I thought, maybe rebel Jews is an inaccurate term. Maybe I just need to think of Jews as the historical questioners, wanders, rabble rousers and chameleons that we have always bene, maybe I was always living a very Jewish life after all. Maybe I was always living a very Jewish life after all. Maybe tackling Talmud was not the only way a good Jew could question. Yes, there are many Jews that follow the straight and narrow path, I know because I dated most of them in New York on J-date, sorry I am sure I will get lots of hate mail from that, but there are many who are freedom fighters, rebels, critics, thinkers with frizzy hair, loud voices, brown skin, white skin, big boobs, short and tall and awkward all over the world. Exhibit A, let’s look at some of the speech titles in this year’s Limmud handbook, shall we? “How do you pray without God?” “How to save your marriage and the Israeli Palestinian conflict all at the same time?” “I’m a lonely Jew at Christmas.” “Happiness is it overrated?” I am constantly asked by educators and parents what we as Jews can do to help keep our youth involved in Judaism and stay proud of who they are? I’m approached by parents wringing their hands because they have a child who is just like I was, or they don’t know if things will turn around for them, or maybe more often they’re terrified that their children will turn out just like me. If I may take a moment to make things more complicated, I would like to admit that sometimes after all this I have told you I still question my own wandering though tougher in my resolve I am still sometimes sensitive to the critics, especially in the Jewish community, who love my sense of pride and being Jewish but are then dismayed when I perform pieces in which I swear, exude sexuality, discuss my past interfaith and inter racial relationships , yes, there are times through all of this which I have shared that as ridiculous as it sounds I still want to be seen as a good Jewish girl. Time to mention neuroticism and guilt, two of the most Jewish traits we possess, and wouldn’t trade one bit of it because you see there is no other way, there is no other way for me to come and speak to you today as a proud Jewish woman without the Upper West Side, without the Sugar Hill Gang, the bodega, the boyfriends, the ham and cheese hero, the Andrew Goodmans, John Stewarts, Bet Midler, the Latinos who love me like family, the hiphop, the heartbreak the guilt and the humour. I am far from a psychologist or Rabbi but I do know that this path, this life, this mission in all its beauty and complexity has been bestowed and blessed upon me and maybe just maybe I am truly that good Jewish girl I never thought I was. I’m the Hebrew Mamita, long lost daughter of Abraham and Sarah, the sexy oy vey, matzah eating, chutzpah having, non-cheeping, non conspirasizing, always questioning , hip hop listening, Torah scroll reading, all people loving, pride filled Jewish girl, bigging up all people who are little miffed because someone tells you, you don’t look like or act like your people, impossible because you are your people, you just tell them they don’t look period (full stop).

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