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The art of spoken word and monologue performance, drawing on the traditions of hip-hop, performative poetry, and theater, has always had the power to convey important messages to audiences. For Vanessa Hidary and Kendell Pinkney, their performative initiative Kaleidoscope uses this art form to center marginalized voices in the larger Jewish conversation.
For Vanessa, a Mizrahi Jew of Syrian origin, growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan exposed her to a variety of Jewish expression, encompassing food, language, and customs. Inspired by a diverse array of friends, a formative love of hip-hop, and the comedic work of Jon Stewart, she has embarked upon a career as a multi-hyphenate artist, creating and performing work in such varied contexts as HBO’s Def Poetry Jam (including a well-known riff on diverse Jewish identity called The Hebrew Mamita), to a stint as a LABA fellow at the 14th Street Y.
Kendell is a multi-hyphenate artist in his own right, from a childhood in Texas, to Oberlin College and New York University, to New York's theater scene presenting work at such places as 54 Below, Joe's Pub, the Goodspeed, and Musical Theater Factory – all while working as a Jewish educator at Congregation Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn.
Their paths would soon intersect.
With Birthright NEXT, Vanessa developed MONOLOGUES, a night of stories about Jewish identity as performed by 15 young adults. Desiring to take MONOLOGUES further and encompass the full diversity of Jewish identity, Vanessa founded Kaleidoscope, a narrative arts-driven showcase highlighting monologue performances from Jews of Color and Jews from non-Ashkenazi backgrounds.
After teaming up with Kendell, they brought together a cohort of performance partners range from Orthodox bloggers to renowned makeup artists, from actors and playwrights, to composers. They hope Kaleidoscope can have significance as a way for Jews with broad ethnic and racial backgrounds to connect to Jewish tradition – but without leaving their own unique identities at the door.
As part of the 2017 JewV’Nation Fellowship, Vanessa and Kendell are working to further develop Kaleidoscope by creating an interactive, video version of the existing mobile workshop to help spread awareness of the rich diversity of Jewish identity. Through carefully honed performance, writing workshops, and teaching curriculum, they hope to create a reflection of the many faces of klal Yisrael (people of Israel).
Funded in part by the UJA Federation in conjunction with Be’chol Lashon, Kaleidoscope’s current program includes live performance, Q&As, and in-person workshops. By expanding programmatic content into the realm of video, they see the possibility of reaching an even wider audience.
To reach this goal, Vanessa and Kendell have used their time in the fellowship to craft and implement a thorough business plan and to internalize the importance of deadlines to maintain momentum in their project. They’ve also taken full advantage of mentorship possibilities by engaging with their cohort colleagues, who have their own unique strengths and experience to offer.
Kendell, a black, southern playwright who is also a Jew-by-choice, seeks to include Jews “who might be asking the very same questions we explore in our [own] work.” As the mother of a young daughter, Vanessa hopes her project can contribute in some way to making her child’s experience as a Jew of Color in the Jewish world more welcoming.
Both Kendell and Vanessa hope that by telling these stories in ways personal and entertaining, Kaleidoscope can help our Jewish institutions move along important conversations surrounding race and ethnicity in the Jewish community – and ensure that individuals have a place where they can see and hear their own stories reflected.
This profile is part of an ongoing series highlighting projects from the inaugural cohort of the URJ’s JewV’Nation Fellowship. For more information about Vanessa's and Kendell's project and the JewV’Nation Fellowship, visit urj.org/jewvnation-fellowship.