Riding the Persian Carpet to Fame: A Generation of Young Iranian Jews Takes a Stab at Showbiz
‘It sucks being Iranian these days,” Iranian-born Jewish comedian Dan Ahdoot jokes in his stand-up act. “People ask me the dumbest questions… ‘Yo, Dan, level with me. Are they making the nuclear weapons or what?’ Like there’s this big e-mail list that goes out every month to anyone who’s Iranian, that reads, ‘Greetings from Tehran. Everything is going according to plan. Soon all the Americans will die! And now birthdays: Mahmoud from Virginia is celebrating his 34th!'”
Though not necessarily for the reasons he outlines in his onstage routine, life has not been without its difficulties for Ahdoot. About five years ago, after graduating pre-med from Johns Hopkins University, he was set to enter medical school. But before he could even crack open an anatomy book, he decided to change course and take a shot at becoming a professional comedian. “My whole family was basically against it, but I used that as a motivation to prove them wrong,” Ahdoot said. “Life is too short. You have to take risks. That’s basically what I did, and thank God it’s paying off.”
The generation of Persian Jews whose parents fled revolutionary Iran 26 years ago is now struggling to find its voice. Like the members of many immigrant generations before them, they find that their parents are hoping they’ll fulfill the American dream. But success can mean different things in different places. Two of the centers of Persian Jewish life in America – Los Angeles and New York – are also entertainment hubs, and for many young Iranian Jews it is the entertainment field and not law or medicine that offers their adopted land’s true promise. Ask him what his name means in English, and Iranian Jewish stand-up comic Marvin Kharrazi will sarcastically say, “satisfied donkey!” His parents, however, are less satisfied. “I still can’t have a conversation with my mom without her pleading with me to return to law school, or even consider medical school!” the 31-year-old Los Angeles-based comic said.
Ahdoot, 26, who hails from the Persian Jewish enclave of Great Neck, N.Y., has built a much-lauded act centered on life as a second-generation Iranian-American. (He was a finalist on the NBC reality show “Last Comic Standing.”) But it seems that his act has gone beyond merely tickling funny bones and toward addressing the anxieties of his peers. “After my TV appearances, I’ve received e-mails from other Iranian Jews, saying, ‘I’m a lawyer or a doctor, and I don’t want to do this anymore,'” he said. Adhoot noted that many Iranian Jewish families feel a strong need for their children to succeed professionally and financially, because a large segment of those who left Iran two-and-a-half decades ago were forced to leave behind vast fortunes. He also stated that being uprooted created among his parents’ generation a sense that education was essential.
“Education is almost as important as money in our community, because it’s something no one can take away from you,” Ahdoot said. “Most parents in the community believe that ‘we came here with nothing and we built this, so you’re supposed to carry the torch.'” Comedy is not the only arena into which young entertainment-minded Iranian Jews have delved. Azita Zendel is among the growing number of Iranian Jewish filmmakers to have found success in the film industry. Prior to forming her own production company, Screen Entertainment Magic, Zendel worked for four years as an executive assistant to acclaimed writer-director Oliver Stone collaborating with him during the making of such films as “JFK,” “Nixon” and “Natural Born Killers.”
“I guess I have stories inside of me that need to be told, and I just love the work,” Zendel said. “God knows it’s not an easy route, but I really couldn’t see myself doing anything else.” Zendel said she never encountered objections to her career decision from her family. In fact, she gives credit to her parents for having exposed her to the performing arts at a young age. “When I was 6, my mother enrolled me in singing and music classes in Iran, which I really enjoyed,” Zendel said. “In the U.S. I took acting classes, modern dance, and was in a few musicals.” After earning a bachelor of arts in communications and attending film school at University of California, Los Angeles, Zendel wrote, directed and produced her own independent film, “Controlled Chaos,” which had a limited theatrical run.
While she understands how Iranian Jewish parents may be concerned with their children’s financial stability, she feels that the pressure they apply can be counterproductive. “To be honest with you, parents aren’t so wrong in saying their kids should have something else to fall back on,” she explained. “What I mind is when they actively try to kill [artistic] desire in kids by bad-mouthing the arts.” Young Iranian Jews also have ventured into the music realm. One emerging Southern California band that has attracted attention from the Iranian Jewish community and beyond is Baba Kazah, which has forged a unique sound by merging rock, pop and reggae elements.
The brainchild of Robert Kavian and Sam Dagighighian, Baba Kazah has taken many in the music industry by surprise. “It strikes people to see guys like us being the main part of this project, because they’ll be expecting a dude with dreadlocks and a joint hanging out of his mouth. We don’t really have that image,” Kavian said. The two formed the band and began an independent record label, but they maintain their day jobs in property management and in engineering. “It’s true that some Persians may look down on young musicians like us, pursuing entertainment careers, but we have both always recognized in our Jewish background fine world musicians like George Gershwin, Yehudi Menuhin and Bob Dylan,” said Kavian. “Young Persian Jews trying to get into this business should know their roots but not be tied down to them. You should absorb all the good your culture has to provide and reject the negative materialism that discourages individual growth.”
Karmel Melamed is an internationally published freelance journalist living in Southern California.