Life & Culture

Can you handle NYC's Hebrew hip-hop poet?

Vanessa Hidary uses rap-style verse to take on Jewish stereotypes.


Offend Vanessa Hidary on a date and you run the risk of a scathing verbal attack — in the form of a witty, fast-paced poem.

In her 2003 poem, Hebrew Mamita, Hidary describes how a hapless suitor remarked that she did not “look Jewish”. At the time she said nothing, but later she realised the remark was supposed to be a compliment.
“What does ‘Jewish’ look like to you?” asks Hidary in characteristic strident style. “Should I fiddle on a f***ing roof for you?/Should I humour you with ‘oy veys’ and refuse to pay/ ’coz you know how we like to ‘Jew you down’. /‘Jew you down’? I’d like to throw you down...”
The hard-hitting verse has been viewed more than half a million times on YouTube and has become Hidary’s defining work. Since she wrote it, the theatre graduate from New York has carved out a career performing at poetry readings or “slams”, sharing the stage with black hip-hop poets.

She is committed to exploring Jewish issues in her verse. At the end of August, she is appearing at adult camp Limmudfest in the Derbyshire countryside. Right now, she is speaking to the JC from Israel, where she is one of the staff on a birthright tour, guiding twentysomething Jews around Israel.

“I want to teach young Jews about Jewish pride,” she says.
“Other than that, I think it’s really important for non-Jews to hear my voice and hear a different kind of Jewish woman rather than the stereotype they have been shown. I really try to keep my message universal, otherwise you’re just preaching to the choir.”

Another of her poems, Culture Bandit, describes how growing up in multicultural New York she enjoyed experiencing a variety of cultural traditions.

“I’m the culture bandit,” goes the rhyme. “I eat matzo in Harlem/I was thrown out of Hebrew school ’coz I spent Rosh Hashanah at the Puerto Rican day parade.”

The daughter of a Syrian-Jewish mother and Ashkanazi father, Hidary resembles a Latino woman with her long dark hair and gold hoop earrings. That, and her obvious borrowings from the hip-hop stylebook might suggest that being Jewish in only one piece in her cultural jigsaw. But she is aware that poems work only as long as she stays true to her roots.

“I didn’t come into it trying to have a street cred,” she insists. “I don’t pretend to come in saying I’m from the ghetto. When you’re honest and real, that is the best street cred. When you start trying to emulate another person’s life, it goes wrong. I thought it was up to me to talk about my struggle with identity. I did feel that no one was representing the Jewish theme. It felt good to be in an urban setting and representing the Jewish voice — because I was that.”

Hidary grew up going to Hebrew classes, attending synagogue on festivals and had a batmitzvah. But she acknowledges that did go through a stage where she was a embarrassed to talk about her background.

“I just don’t think I felt fully connected,” she says. “I was battling with my identity, being around so many different cultures, being in the hip- hop scene. Only when I got older [she is now in her thirties] I realised how important it was to me. I took it for granted which I think is a part of being young. I wasn’t really sure how I felt about that label.”

Another important theme in her work is relationships — indeed her own search for love.

“My poem PhD In Him is about a girl who puts so many hours in to a relationship that, with all that time, she could have got a master’s degree. It’s important to talk about that. It’s by no means coming from a place of bitterness. I enjoy exploring the differences between the sexes — and making people laugh.

“A lot of things I write are R rated, strong material. Some parts of the Jewish community can’t really handle it and I have grown to accept that. Luckily my mum loves all of it. She’s an artist herself. I’m blessed to have an open family. In my family, if you didn’t become an artist that would seem strange.”

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