Talia bat Pessi: 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?
Vanessa Hidary: 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 ten years, but I think of the Upper West Side when I grew up in it as a multicultural area. My parents came to the UWS when it was very transitional, 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 the city than being a Jew and exploring Judaism. 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, but I did go to Hebrew school and did stuff like that.
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 the 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 actor, so I got my Masters in acting in Rhode Island, but I had no idea what my route would be. There were several one-person shows theaters in the area, and I was drawn to writing, but never thought that a combination between the two was possible, so I found the misfit interesting. 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 Ado-nai, viva Puerto Rico ha olam, hamotzi fight the power min ha’aretz,” and people were listening. I saw I had an interesting story that people, Jewish and not Jewish, wanted to hear, that 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, so people irritated me when they would say that I don’t look Jewish. My friends went through revolutions for 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 they 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, and because there are no Jewish girls where I go I feel it’s my journey, my calling, to do so. In my upbringing there was all a plan, the struggling 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 piss 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.