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Mixing it up

Diversity lessons from a ‘Hebrew Mamita’

Vanessa Hidary, the “Hebrew Mamita,” kneeling, with Congregation B’nai Tikvah Chai teens and teachers Barry Safeer and Ilana Silverman, far left.     
Vanessa Hidary, the “Hebrew Mamita,” kneeling, with Congregation B’nai Tikvah Chai teens and teachers Barry Safeer and Ilana Silverman, far left.     

Vanessa Hidary, a slam poet and performer better known as the “Hebrew Mamita,” calls herself a “culture bandit.”

Syrian Sephardi on her father’s side and Eastern European Ashkenazi on her mother’s, Hidary grew up in the cultural and ethnic melting pot of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

“My friends were black, white, Dominican, Asian, Puerto Rican, and Jewish,” she said. In her performances and poetry, she often challenges stereotypes of Jews. 

On Sept. 27, she gave a workshop for teens at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, where she mused on her own mixed Jewish identity and asked the teens to share their own experiences of stereotypes. 

Her appearance was funded through a $15,000 grant from the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ to the Chai program, which provides guest speakers, innovative programming, and field trips for Jewish teens.

“We couldn’t have brought in somebody who is a superstar without the grant, and she is a superstar,” said the synagogue’s education director, Jennifer James. “We are bringing in people who offer different perspectives on Jewish identity.” 

Hidary competes in slam poetry competitions and performs for clubs and at colleges and universities. She has appeared at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America and at Limmud conferences of Jewish learning in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

In her workshop, Hidary said she is often mistaken for a Latina and feels like “the Jewish police” or the “fly on the wall” when she has overheard comments that play off stereotypes of Jews. She recalled a bartender telling her she didn’t “look Jewish” or “act Jewish” and described a “friend” who recommended her for a job by saying, “Vanessa will be really good with money.” 

“She thought that was a compliment,” said Hidary. The friend was surprised when Hidary took offense.

The teens, all public school students, said they had rarely encountered blatant anti-Semitism but had been stereotyped. A tall blond teen said he was told he didn’t look Jewish, and a high school athlete said that a teammate expressed surprise at his prowess in sports. 

Hidary described the complexities of Jewish identity. “When someone says, ‘What are you?’ I say ‘I’m Jewish’ to distinguish myself from other white people. ‘I’m white, but I’m not George Bush white’ is the only way to describe it.”

Hidary’s poetry challenges all such stereotypes.

“I write my pieces based on my experience being Jewish, but really they can be about any group of people,” Hidary told the teens. “I know Latinos who are told they don’t look Puerto Rican or blacks who are told they don’t look black. I feel really good that all people who are stereotyped can relate.”

While Jews can choose not to divulge their identities, she said, people of color don’t have that option, she said.

“People can’t take off their black so they have had a different experience,” Hidary said. “As Jews I think it’s really important to think about the experiences of other people.”

Indeed, she spoke to black Jews during a performance this past summer who told her they were made to feel unwelcome at a synagogue. “I’ve never gone to a temple and people rejected me,” said Hidary. “I can never really know what that experience feels like.”

Evie Cukor, a 16-year-old junior at East Brunswick High School, said the program caused her to think about the prevalence of stereotypes; Hidary “expressed very well about how people in school don’t always realize what they are saying,” said Cukor.

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