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Rhyming and Stealing

What’s a Little Cultural Appropriation Among Polyethnic Americans in Today’s Multiculturalism?

CULTURE KLATSCH: Vanessa Hidary stages a one-woman melting pot.

By John Barry | Posted 3/1/2006

Vanessa Hidary calls herself the “Hebrew Mamita.” So she’s half Jewish, half Latina? Over the phone from Manhattan, Hidary—who brings her one-woman spoken-word performance Culture Bandit to Theatre Project for an eight-performance engagement starting March 2—immediately corrects that misapprehension. She’s half Sephardic and half Ashkenazi, went to Hebrew school, and, although her family was generally secular, she observed most of the holidays. She rediscovered her religious and ethnic identity in her post-Sept.-11, post-college years. That explains the Hebrew part.

What about the Mamita? “Well, I came up with the name,” she laughs. After graduating from NYC’s Hunter College, she explains, she tried the straight acting thing. That morphed into performance art. “But I started writing my own material, and then I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” Instead of wanting to be the next Meryl Streep, she “wound up being the next Hebrew Mamita.” Her spoken-word poem by the same title articulates the tension of life in the ’hood.

I meet a guy in a bar that’s cute

He wears L.L.Bean duck boots and guards my barstool when I have to go pee

He orders me a Manhattan straight up because I’m homesick

He asks me out to dinner the following Tuesday

I decline. Tuesday is Yom Kippur, I will be fasting

“You’re Jewish?

Wow, you don’t look Jewish!

You don’t act Jewish!”

Hidary’s web site refers to her as an urban outlaw. The résumé supports her claim to street cred with her public school upbringing (LaGuardia School for the Arts) and her life in the ’hood (West 89th Street). West 89th Street, she concedes, isn’t as it was; it was more diverse in the 1970s and ’80s. Since she’s 35 now, that would have put her in elementary school at the time.

“Well, I write from experience,” she says. “For some reason, people find me interesting.”

OK, she grew up during the so-called golden age of hip-hop. She has Latino friends, ate matzo in Harlem, spent Rosh Hashanah at a Puerto Rican Day parade, and went to Latino friends’ houses for Christmas. In fact, according to her poem “Culture Bandit” she got kicked out of Hebrew school for attending that parade.

As she paints it, she was a young Jewish girl—with a father from Aleppo, Syria—whose parents taught in the New York public school system. “There was a lot of bewilderment and confusion,” she says.

But whenever asked to define the bewilderment and confusion she’s talking about, she demurs. “I remember when I ate pork for the first time,” she says. Yeah, but when exactly did she find that tension between races? “Well, there’s a piece in Culture Bandit about me looking for colleges. I went to the University of Maryland with my mother, and when I saw that black and white students were eating at different tables, I knew I wasn’t going to go there.” She laughs. “I guess this is the first time I’ll be telling that story in Baltimore.”

As she describes it, her Upper West Side upbringing gave her the perfect mix for her cultural development and ultimately led to the rediscovery of her Jewish roots. And she attributes much of her education to hip-hop. “The time line of the show is really the time line of the music scene,” she says. “I grew up listening to old-school groups like the Sugarhill Gang.”

Her stories are basically her own, against the background of hip-hop in the late 1980s. “Then hip-hop was getting more political, with the Sugarhill Gang, Eric B. and Rakim, Public Enemy, the X-Clan,” she says. And the older she got, the more serious the ethnic divide became. “It all started out being funny, but then it starts to get more serious.”

Whenever asked what, exactly, those serious issues were, Hidary pauses for thought. “Well, I didn’t know that ‘holocaust’ wasn’t just a Jewish word,” she says. Beyond some ruminations about the need for reparations for African-Americans, though, she’s a little evasive when asked for specifics. “Well, this isn’t the civil-rights era,” she says. “But it’d be in denial if I was to say that in 2000 everything’s OK.”

Basically, she wants people to leave Culture Bandit thinking—but about what, exactly? She prefers to avoid political debates. “When I’m talking about tension, it’s much more cultural than political,” she says.

As she puts it in her poem “Whatcha Gonna Say, Poet?”: “Can we really make those strong statements on the Middle East before we walk our little fuckin’ feet/ to a bookstore/ to a lecture”

Hidary frankly acknowledges that her poetry generally returns to her central motivating factor: numera una. A young Jewish woman in New York grows up in culturally vibrant neighborhood, is educated and made more aware by politically outspoken Run-DMC, then at age 30 visits Israel and finds a stronger connection to her own Jewish background. She approves this interpretation.

And she hasn’t done poorly for herself by it, either. She forwards her résumé, which includes a stint on NBC’s Sept. 11 tribute, Concert for America, gigs at Brooklyn Academy of Music Café, and Grand Slam Poetry Finalist at the Nuyorican Poets Café. She tours colleges and universities. Meanwhile, Hidary says, she’s just been to the Sundance Film Festival, where her poem “Hebrew Mamita” was featured in The Tribe, a short feature.

So fine, call her a bandit. She’ll admit it.

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