W. Kamau Bell is a comedian known for his edgy standup and his CNN series, United Shades of America, in which he visits communities across America to understand the challenges they face. The show has won Emmy Awards three years running for best unstructured reality program.
Anna Kaplan is a state senator from Great Neck now seeking her second term, the first Iranian-American to be elected to the State Legislature and the first former political refugee to serve in the State Senate. A Persian Jew raised in Tabriz, Iran, she was sent to America alone as a 13-year-old when the country was consumed by revolution in 1979; she was later joined by her parents.
And last September, the two came together in Great Neck to celebrate, discuss and enjoy the traditions of a Persian Shabbos dinner, pre-COVID, with the event filmed for a show set to air at 10 p.m. on Aug. 30.
“He was just a big teddy bear,” Kaplan said of Bell, who dwarfs her in photos of their time together. “He was so interested and gracious, just to talk about where we come from and our traditions, and how we continue them here and now.”
The two met because a member of Bell’s production team knows Kaplan and knew Bell was planning a segment on the Persian community in Great Neck, said Sean Collins, Kaplan’s communications director. Kaplan and her team met with Bell’s team to see whether it would be a good fit, everybody hit it off, and soon enough Bell was seated at Kaplan’s table with her mother, husband and two daughters, brother, sister-in-law and a few others.
Bell was placed next to Kaplan’s mother, Sara Khakshouri Monahemi, 84, to get the full force of the family culture and religious traditions, ones unique to Iranian Jews and to Tabiz, and ones more universal, like the prayers over candles, wine and bread, and to enjoy a meal cooked by the mother and daughter.
The meal included two styles of a meatball-type dish made with chicken called gondi, plus roasted chicken, roasted vegetables, Persian saffron rice with its golden, scorched bottom, okra koresht (slow-cooked Persian stew), baklava, fruit and berries, dried dates and frozen cashews.
Kaplan said Bell was there for several hours to get the flavor of the event, asked a lot of questions and seemed genuinely fascinated by what he saw.
Now she’s just excited to watch the episode next month, and nervous. She’s had no sneak peek.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to sit still to watch it,” Kaplan said, sounding both excited and anxious. “For me, the hardest part of being a senator is the public speaking and the cameras.”