Woody Allen had it easy.
A Jewish mother, a slice of herring, a dab of gefilte fish jelly, a shmear of Martin Buber, and a put-down of mayonnaise on white bread for a punch line. Everyone knew what the Jewish menu and the Jewish joke looked like, 50 years ago.
It was never that simple, of course. New York mythology aside, not all Jews left Russia between 1880 and 1923. And not all Jews spoke Yiddish. But ask around in Syrian communities in New York City and you’ll hear stories of grandparents from Damascus and Aleppo whose Jewishness met with stares of disbelief. “How could you be Jewish if you don’t speak Jewish?” that is, Yiddish, they were asked by their Ashkenazic neighbors.
That was then. Now you can dismiss your Litvak zeidie’s ignorant arrogance with a high-falutin’ put-down: Oh, he’s being Ashkenormative again. A lot of consciousness has been raised in the past decade and half on how much the Jewish community constricted itself with unspoken, unquestioned assumptions about Jews looking a certain way, acting a certain way, eating a certain away. In a multicultural age, it began to make sense that there are lots of Jewish cultures.
And at the forefront of that consciousness raising, holding the mic and posting spoken-word videos to YouTube, was Vanessa Hidary, the self-styled Hebrew Mamita, who will perform at Temple Emeth in Teaneck this Shabbat afternoon.
Ms. Hidary grew up in a Jewishly diverse family — her mother from Syrian stock, her father Ashkenazic. Her grandmother had come from Aleppo, where she never would have heard the term “gefilte fish” — which, after all, is simply how you say “stuffed fish” in Yiddish.
She grew up not in the Lower East Side, or in Jewish Brooklyn, but in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, at 88th and Columbus. She’s a bit vague about exactly when, but has described it as during the “hip-hop era.” She went to a local public school and her best friend was a Puerto Rican whose parents owned the corner bodega. Ms. Hidary discovered what it was like to be seen sometimes as Jewish and sometimes as not. She didn’t always like what she heard people say about Jews when they thought she wasn’t one.
She graduated from the LaGuardia High School of the Arts, studied at Hunter College, and earned an M.F.A. in acting.
When it was time to put on a performing persona, to venture to the East Village performance spaces and even the famed Nuyorican Poets Cafe, she dubbed herself the Hebrew Mamita because, she said, “I wanted to represent my neighborhood and how I grew up. I grew up with a very strong Latino culture around me. Mamita is a term of endearment.”
The performance she will bring to Teaneck centers on “modern Jewish identity and race relations, my experience growing up— plus a q-and-a afterward.” Her career has taken her well past New Jersey; she has performed from Alabama to Jerusalem.
“I do sessions that deal with the basics of what does Jewish look like to you. I talk about Jewish living outside the box,” she said.
“When I was growing up, people didn’t know that much about Sephardic Jews, about Jews of different cultures and races. I think the Internet has changed that a lot. They’re starting to have a bigger presence, and the Jewish community is changing. The community is becoming more open to having different faces.”
She can’t quite believe that it has been 15 years since she first worked with Be’chol Lashon, — Hebrew for “in every tongue” — a then-brand-new organization in San Francisco, which imagines “a new global Judaism that transcends differences in geography, ethnicity, class, race, ritual practice, and beliefs.” One of Be’chol Lashon’s premiere activities is an overnight summer camp for racially and ethnically diverse Jewish children.
Locally, Be’chol Lashon’s mission is echoed by Temple Emeth’s Viewpoints committee, which is sponsoring Ms. Hidary. The committee was “formed to celebrate the diversity of the Jewish community and includes programs that highlight the interfaith, interracial, and LGBT communities.”
Ms. Hidary promises that her performance will bring “a lot of humor mixed into poignant things to think about.”
Her latest project has placed her in the director’s chair. It’s a show called Kaleidoscope. She brought together a group of a dozen “ethnically diverse Jews, Jews of color, Sephardic Jews, and had them write their experiences growing up.”
Kaleidoscope’s creation and some performances were underwritten by grants from New York’s UJA-Federation and the 14th Street Y. Now Ms. Hidary is applying for grants to “make that show happen again and attach a curriculum to that.”