An exploration of “what’s hot and happening” in the Jewish community was the theme that drew nearly 300 attendees to the Aidekman campus in Whippany May 3 for Women’s Awareness Day 2011.
Particularly well-positioned to offer that assessment was keynote speaker at the Women’s Philanthropy of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ event: actress/poet/playwright Vanessa Hidary, also known as “The Hebrew Mamita.”
A native New Yorker of Syrian and Russian-Jewish descent (“I call myself a Sephardi-Ashkenazi smoothie,” she joked), Hidary has played to audiences nationwide with her rap-infused spoken word performances, most recently appearing at Tribefest 2011 in Las Vegas as well as the 2010 International Lion of Judah Conference in New Orleans.
Hidary interspersed audience dialogue with her hip hop-influenced poetry, performing “Queen Esther,” a tribute to her beloved Sephardi aunt; “The Top Ten Tell-Tale Signs That You Work a Lot in the Jewish Community,” highlighting some of the funnier moments she’s experienced performing at Jewish venues; and her signature piece, “The Hebrew Mamita,” a commentary on stereotypes, anti-Semitism, and Jewish pride. Hidary, who concedes that she has “become a Jewish role model, which brings with it a huge responsibility,” also performed a piece that included her concerns over racism within the Jewish community itself. Hidary noted while she performs frequently for Jewish audiences, she routinely presents her act outside of the Jewish community as well, regarding such performances as helping to educate people and bring them together.
Hidary’s performance concluded with an audience Q&A, during which she discussed her start as an actress and her calling as a poet in recognition of an absence of strong voices in this niche within the urban Jewish female community.
Hidary has produced a CD, The Hebrew Mamita, and will soon publish her first book, a collection of poems and stories called The Last Kaiser Roll in the Bodega.
Presented annually for over 15 years and described by Women’s Philanthropy director Sarabeth Wizen as “an educational and outreach program with a fund-raising component,” the event kicked off with a breakfast followed by opening comments from cochairs Marsha Hoch and Debbie Rovner, who said they were gratified to offer women the opportunity to hear engaging speakers with inspirational messages.
Taryn Glassman shared a memorial tribute to her mother, Maxine Fischer, who served as president of Women’s Philanthropy. In an effort to share examples of “women doing extraordinary things with and for each other,” current president Anna Fisch introduced Ann Leeb, who talked about her developmentally disabled daughter and the important support she has received from the Friendship Circle of MetroWest, which connects caring teen volunteers with special-needs families.
Following Leeb’s presentation, Fisch said, “We link arms with each other in a unique way at Women’s Philanthropy and aim to build, sustain, and speak for our community with an emphasis on the most needy among us.”
After Hidary’s act, Maplewood resident Sheryl Parker, 44, said, “Vanessa was a really fresh perspective. This was the first Women’s Awareness Day event that I’d ever attended and I thought the organizers did a great job in putting together a really excellent and inspiring program.
“It makes a strong case for why it’s so important to support women’s initiatives.”
For 76-year-old Cynthia Plishtin of East Hanover, who has attended Women’s Philanthropy events for over 40 years, the presence of so many young, new faces in this crowd was encouraging. “I’m so enthused,” she said, “because the fewer people I recognize at these gatherings, the healthier I think it is for our community.”
Wizen agreed, saying, “It’s always energizing to see a turnout of this magnitude and a gathering of multi-generational women from the community who enjoy being together and benefitting from their own wonderful work.”
In an effort to extend the broader theme of the event to “what’s hot and happening at MetroWest,” this year’s Women’s Awareness Day also featured exhibits by many of UJC’s agencies and initiatives, including the WAE Center for the developmentally disabled; the Community Relations Committee, the UJC’s public policy and advocacy arm; the PJ Library and Jewish Camp for kids; and the Legow Family Israel Program Center.
The event was followed by a Lion of Judah luncheon for major donors.