Arts & Culture

Oy Vez Como Va

All Jews, at some point in their lives, dream of wagging their fingers at an audience and saying, "Jew you down? I’d like to throw you down!" But few members of the tribe can do it with such instinctive brio … Read More

By / November 11, 2008

All Jews, at some point in their lives, dream of wagging their fingers at an audience and saying, "Jew you down? I’d like to throw you down!" But few members of the tribe can do it with such instinctive brio as spoken word artist Vanessa Hidary, a.k.a. the Hebrew Mamita. Hidary, a 30-something Syrian Jewish girl, who has appeared three times on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam, and has performed on the Comedy Central Stage in Los Angeles, was raised in a mixed neighborhood on the Upper West Side and is now making a career out of telling us about it.

Though her act is spoken word, Hidary’s shows go through all the usual motions of a song and dance number. She keeps a low center of gravity, her hips circulating her body and her arms cutting through the air, fingertips-first. She constantly alternates grace with sauce, as if she is a ballerina acting out a breakup scene with all the attitude left in. In her aptly-titled piece Hebrew Mamita, a man on a bar stool tells her she doesn’t look Jewish to which Hidary fires back, "What does Jewish look like to you? Should I fiddle on a fuckin’ roof for you?" Clearly, this is not the kind of poetry that can be left on a page, unperformed. Hidary wants her poetry to be heard, to reach high notes, to stop dead in dramatic pauses, to sink quickly into ear canals. And sink quickly they do, bungling almost every Jewish stereotype along the way. After a Hidary performance, the members of the audience will be praying that they never be left alone in a dark alley with someone who has two x-chromosomes and, heaven forbid, a decipherable ration of Jewish blood.

For the past few weeks, Hidary and I have been volleying emails back and forth, talking about identity politics, haters and the man who "fucked like Brooklyn."

RA: I like your name Hebrew Mamita.

VH: Thanks. People usually assume it’s a name coined from being part Latina and part Jewish. But I’m a Syrian/Ashkenazi Jew. I’m a Jewish girl who grew up around many Latinos and feel a connection to that community. And "Mamita" is a term of endearment, that I have heard my whole life. It made sense to put it with the "Hebrew." I like putting unique titles together, and more importantly, bringing people together. Something that gets people thinking and asking. In fact, right now, I’m about to be on a weekly radio show on UrbanLatino.com. My girl La Bruja heads a show called "Late Night Bru." I’m one of the sidekicks. My Hebrew Mamita segment will include a Shalom Alechim/Reggaton remix. If I can get one Jew a week to call in that would be an achievement! Here’s the plug: we launch November 16th at 8pm on Urbanlatino.com

RA: When did you become a spoken word artist?

VH: It was in 2000. I had been writing my own monologues for awhile and then I saw a Def Poetry Jam performance at The Brooklyn Museum and I knew this genre was for me.

RA: You were a Sephardic Jewish girl who grew up in a black and Hispanic neighborhood. 

VH: I would rather describe it as a very mixed neighborhood. Jews, Blacks, Latinos; this was in the 70’s, when the Upper West Side was not considered the upscale area it is now. My parents were public school-teaching, channel 13 tote bag-carrying liberal Jews, who took a chance investing property in what was then considered somewhat of a risky neighborhood. I always thought, growing up, that everyone lived like this. With Puerto Ricans knowing what lox was, and Jews drinking Malta. There are many of us from this area who know what I’m talking about and had similar experiences. I just felt a mission to write about it, and represent this very New York City experience. So I guess what I’m saying is that it is a "normal" experience. You just gotta be an old School New Yorker to get it.

RA: Can an artist still be an artist without experiencing an extreme, or at least, unique hardship?

VH: Yes, aren’t they called musical theatre performers? Kidding! Kinda. Am I gonna get hate mail for that? Sorry, they just seem pretty chipper to me.

RA: Does being a Syrian Jew give you more ethnic cred in the hip hop world than an Eastern European Jew?

VH: Nope. I don’t think most people in this country even know what a Sephardic Jew is. But that’s another article. And I’m half Ashkenazi so let me represent my Russian side too!

RA: Is there a history of spoken word in the Jewish tradition?

VH: I know we have always been great storytellers.

RA: In your piece, The Hebrew Mamita, you speak about Holocaust memory. Do you ever feel that as a Jewish artist you carry the "burden" or responsibility of talking about our rich, chronically tragic past?

VH: Not a burden. But a responsibility, yes. A vessel to carry along our story and our culture.

RA: You wrote about a man who fucked you like Brooklyn.

VH: Err, when someone else quotes my pieces it always sounds dirtier to me! Let’s just say nothing sounds better linguistically than Brooklyn. Do you think people would feel the power of something like, "He Fucked me Like Tribeca?" Okay, this subject is closed.

RA: Was anyone ever upset about the way they were represented in one of your pieces? Is it difficult to find the balance between being honest about the people in your life without throwing them to the lions?

VA: No. I disguise people very well. Or I just take them off my show mailing list. :)

RA: You’re performances are very rhythmic. How much does music influence your work? Which musicians?

VH: Hip- Hop , comedy, and theatre. A combo of the three are my recipe. I love Lauren Hill, Big Daddy Kane, The Beatles, Led Zepplin, Saturday Night Live, etc….

RA: Would you write your poetry differently if you were not going to perform it?

VH: Yes. Less wordy pieces for performances.

RA: Do you write better when you are calm or when you’re in a fit of passion?

VH: I don’t know this word "calm" you speak of.

RA: I’ve never experienced it either. Where do you write?

VH: Starbucks. I know, I know, it’s kinda capitalist and not unique and "artsy," but its close and when they see me coming they begin to make my drink. Big shout out to Josh, Luis, and Scarlet on 86th street! I can’t write at home. I’m too distracted.

RA: Tell me about your haters!

VH: Wow, am I popular enough to have haters? Well, I guess Hebrew Mamita haters would be those who think we should all live within cultural or racial boundaries. People who are like, ‘why is she calling herself Mamita when she’s not Latina?’ Or people who try to reduce my poems to "man bashing," or criticize me as a woman using "dirty" words, because it makes them uncomfortable. But in general I feel very blessed to get a lot of love from every race, gender and religion. I also think when you have any success, people quickly forget how much hard work one puts in. I’ve been producing, promoting, hosting and performing my own shows for years. Any success I’ve had had lots of sweat behind it. It kills me when I see someone in the game for a year and they’re whining about not getting paid.

RA: I’ve heard that it’s difficult for spoken word artists to understand what their audience is thinking. Musicians get applause. Comedians get laughs. But poets get more of a "Mmmmm." Is this difficult for you? Do you constantly have your audience on your mind when you’re performing?

VH: Hmmm, I don’t really see it that way. I feel I can feel and hear the response of my audience. I try not to think of them too much though. Every audience has its own personality.

RA: Do you think urban poetry could ever hit the mainstream?

VH: Well, Def Poetry Jam was the closest we ever got. I think if people are creative more things could develop. a reality show perhaps? Another "Slam" movie? But sometimes I think the art form is best when experienced live. Please come check out my show, The Culture Bandit Soul II, this Wednesday night at 8:00 pm at The Zipper Factory with another artist that breaks race boundaries, the amazing soul singer, Maya Azucena!