Navigate to News section

The Chosen Ones: An Interview With Iris Bahr

The American comedian on being ‘too Israeli’ or ‘too American,” growing up in the Bronx and Tel Aviv, and why Passover is her favorite Jewish holiday

Periel Aschenbrand
December 16, 2016
Photo courtesy of Iris Bhar
Illustration by Tablet Photo courtesy of Iris Bhar
Photo courtesy of Iris Bhar
Illustration by Tablet Photo courtesy of Iris Bhar

Iris Bahr is an award-winning writer, actor, director, and producer. She received the prestigious Lucille Lortel Award for excellence in New York Off-Broadway theater for Best Solo Performance in Dai (Enough), as well as two Drama Desk and U.K. Stage Award nominations. She played the Orthodox Jewish girl who gets stuck on a ski-lift with Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm and went viral on Funny or Die with her “Southern white trash” title character in Rae Lynn Casper White’s Preggo Tips. She had her own television series, Svetlana, which ran for two seasons on HDNet beginning in May 2010, in which her alter ego—the title character who was, quite literally, a whore who slept with some of the most powerful leaders in the world, among others—was “lauded as one of the most skillful and ambitious Russian businesswomen to have ever landed on the shores of America” by Israeli comedian Adi Ashkenazi.

She has written two memoirs: Dork Whore: My Travels Through Asia as a 20-Year-Old Pseudo-Virgin, which was a bestseller in Europe, and its sequel, Macchu My Picchu. Bahr is masterful at improv and according to The New York Daily News, she is “wickedly funny” and “demonstrates that smarts, talent and dramatic focus are a potent combination … she has more identities and accents than a cloned Meryl Streep.”

I discovered Bahr on one of my favorite Israeli comedy shows, Irreversible, in which she played the main character’s crazy sister. I found out that after four years of going back and forth between Israel and Los Angeles, she had finally come to her senses and moved to New York. I recently caught up with her in a small coffee shop in the East Village.

Periel Aschenbrand: I understand you’re a hybrid.

Iris Bahr: You can’t win. In Israel they say I’m “too American,” and here they say I’m “too Israeli.” Too salty for the Americans and too much of a pussy for the Israelis. In Israel, people always say, “Why do you keep saying you’re sorry?” We don’t realize how often we say we’re sorry. I’m sorry, we’re sorry. It’s that instinct as a woman; you can triple that by a million. We’re always apologizing for something. In Israel, they’re like, “What’s the problem?”

PA: Tell me about Irreversible.

IB: Four years ago, I shot the first season when I was pregnant. We had to hide my pregnancy, so that was fun. By the end, I looked like a truck and my face was so swollen. And this season, my character was pregnant, so they had to make me look pregnant. They made me wear nostril expanders to make my face appear fatter. I literally looked like a gorilla. It was very unfortunate.

PA: You really can’t win, huh?

IB: Really.

PA: In any event, it’s a great show. So you grew up in Tel Aviv, right?

IB: I moved there when I was 13 and my parents got divorced. My dad is still in New York and my mom’s in Israel. When I moved there I went into culture shock as an eighth grader, coming from the Bronx. I went to a very Orthodox school and my parents were extremely secular.

PA: Riverdale?

IB: Yes!

PA: Every Jew who lives in the Bronx lives in Riverdale.

IB: We were like the secular Israelis, living a double life. I wanted to be accepted, I wanted to go to shul, but my dad was eating pork sausage and taking me to the Guggenheim on Saturdays. It was a tough way to live; I was torn, going back and forth.

PA: You moved to Israel when you were 13, and then what?

IB: I stayed. I went to the army, traveled through Asia, like every Israeli does. Then I went to Brown. I was older than everyone else.

PA: That’s pretty impressive that you got into Brown.

IB: Well, thank you. But I couldn’t find my footing. I was 21, just served in the Israeli army, traveled around Asia and almost died 16 times and these kids still had acne and were asking me to buy them beer.

PA: You almost died in the army?

IB: No, in Asia. In the army, I was in an office four minutes from my house.

PA: Ha ha.

IB: I went back to Israel my junior year.

PA: You missed it?

IB: I missed it and I felt like I had a splintered identity. I think a lot of artists feel that way anyway.

PA: I get that.

IB: It’s challenging. It’s a constant dance. As opposed to someone who grew up in Nashville their whole life. But there is something very American about it, too, because we’re a nation of immigrants.

PA: Not for long.

IB: Don’t depress me.

PA: So you went back to Brown?

IB: Yes. I was studying neuropsychology and doing brain research.

PA: Whoa, whoa. Do you have a secret Ph.D. and do brain surgery in your spare time?!

IB: I wish. No. But I love brain research so I went to Stanford for a few months and did brain research and then went back to Tel Aviv and did cancer research with rats.

Bahr as ‘Svetlana.’ (Marc Goldstein)
Bahr as ‘Svetlana.’ (Marc Goldstein)

PA: Are you insane? Were you acting already? Were you doing this as Svetlana?

IB: Right, as a Russian whore in the operating room: “Chello, chow are you, take out your brain now.”

PA: Amazing. Spasibo. Then what?

IB: I eventually decided to move to New York and then L.A. and I got a job in the brain-mapping center. But I really wanted to act and this wasn’t really a job where you could phone it in.

PA: I wouldn’t think so.

IB: I liked the dramatic parts, like when you have to go into the operating room and they’re removing tumors while the person is awake and you have to talk to them and their head is wide open.

PA: You were doing that?!

IB: I was assisting.

PA: That’s insane.

IB: That stuff was really interesting but then I would have to the analysis and the algorithms and the computer programs and I turned into a lazy moron.

PA: That is shocking.

IB: Yeah, so I was like, this is great, guys, but I have a Burger King call back I have to get to.

PA: I imagine they weren’t into that.

IB: I finally decided that a lot of people could do what I do in the brain research industry, but only I can bring what I bring to my art.

PA: You’re very unique.

IB: I once had a director scream at me, “That’s a singular term! You’re either unique or you’re not. There’s no such thing as very unique!”

PA: Fair. To that end, What’s your favorite drink?

IB: A glass of Brunello.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

IB: Over medium. Or soft-boiled.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

IB: I don’t drink coffee. I’m naturally alert. If you wake me up in the middle of the night, it will sound like I’ve been up for 14 hours. There’s no lapse time.

PA: Did you ever drink coffee?

IB: No.

PA: Did you do cocaine?

IB: No!

PA: That’s not one of the rote questions, it’s not something I ask everyone.

IB: I’d fly off a roof.

PA: So you’re naturally just very on?

IB: “On” has bizarre connotations.

PA: Alert.

IB: Alert. Vigilant.

PA: Vigilant! What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

IB: Thanksgiving. Just kidding. Passover. I usually do a big Seder at my house. We sit around the table and read. One year I invited my dear friend, the actor Harry Lennix, over. He has a very deep voice, so there were a bunch of nebbishy Jews reading and then it was his turn and he was like, “AND THEN THE JEWS WERE RELEASED FROM EGYPT.” My mom almost had an orgasm.

PA: I love that.

IB: I do all the songs in phonetic English so everyone can sing along.

PA: Did you have a bat mitzvah?

IB: I did.

PA: What did you wear?

IB: I don’t remember. But I do remember that one of my parents’ friends gave me a Gucci watch and we were all very impressed and then a year later, we had to change the battery and found it was a fake.

PA: That is elegant. I wonder where that guy is now. What shampoo do you use?

IB: Some sort of Rusk product.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

IB: Oh god, lox. I can’t stand gefilte fish, it makes me ill! I am Sephardic, we don’t do gefilte fish.

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

IB: My phone, my wallet, lip balm, my computer, and scrunched up tissue.

PA: What kind of lip balm?

IB: Something I got on the airplane when I flew business class in ’98. Really.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

IB: I just got these Stan Smiths and I’m loving them.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.