What’s the best way to deal with pain, trauma, and the feeling of not belonging? Comedy, of course! And what communities deal with oodles of said pain and trauma? Jews and Muslims, to name a few. That’s why Eitan Levine and Yeganeh Mafaher have teamed up to use comedy to bridge the gap between these two communities. The two comedians are teaming up to present Shalom Habibi, a comedy tour that hopes to inspire meaningful conversations, unity, and of course, lots of laughter. Every show will feature a line-up of equal parts Jewish and Arab/Muslim comedians, followed by a Q&A podcast recording with the audience. A portion of the shows’ proceeds will go to HIAS, a Jewish American non-profit that provides aid and assistance to refugees, and IRUSA, a Muslim American food relief organization.
Shalom Habibi (shalom being the Hebrew word for hello, goodbye, and peace and habibi Arabic for “my love” and used affectionately among friends) kicks off at the JCC of Manhattan on January 25, and will then go on to cities across the country including LA, Atlanta, and more. To learn more about the inspiration for the tour, we had Levine and Mafaher interview each other over email about how their religion influences their comedy, the celebrities they hope will come catch the tour, and Jesus Christ, naturally.
Yeganeh: Hey Eitan! What made you want to get into comedy?
Eitan: I got into comedy for two reasons: (1) I had cancer as a kid and used to keep a journal. Over time that journal just became weird observations that kids tend to make but in joke format… probably because of all the time I spent at home alone INGESTING Comedy Central Presents. To this day, all I consume is comedy, Sum41, 60 Minutes, and Fall Out Boy. And (2) I also went to an all boys Jewish school. No girls or bacon = a lot of free time.
Those two things amounted to me getting into comedy when I was 15. I did an open mic ON CRUTCHES at the Stress Factory in New Jersey the week before 10th grade and it sorta stuck. Now I’m an industry staple.
You’re the youngest person I’ve ever met in my entire life (21) — how is that even possible that you’re that age? I didn’t think people were that age anymore.
Yeganeh: Iranians age backwards. I’m actually 36. So yes I will die at 57. That’s how math works, right? My people invented algebra and then fixed aging.
Eitan: That explains why most of your material is about Algebra and lotion… am I doing this interview right? Is this how Anderson Cooper does it? *Gets SERIOUS* What DRIVES you? What IS comedy? (This was my 60 Minutes way of asking you how you got into comedy.)
Yeganeh: I was always the prettiest in my family, so I decided to also become the funniest. Smartest was off the table. I think when you’re Iranian you either become a doctor or lawyer… so if you’ve already skewed away from that dream, might as well become a circus clown in a bar.
Eitan: As a Jewish person, I have no idea what it must feel like for every single person you’ve ever met in your entire life to expect you to become a doctor or lawyer… that must be tough.
Yeganeh: I think a big moment of representation was when we were at an Arab party and someone passed out. They screamed, “Is anyone in the house a DOCTOR?!” and half of the party raised their hand. And the other half considered what lawsuits could occur by calling an ambulance.
Eitan: I think that was honestly, truly, one of the bigger, “OH, WE’RE THE SAME PEOPLE” moments that I’ve had working on this tour. I’ve met a lot of Arab-Muslim people since Shalom Habibi came together and the thing I keep coming back to is how SHOCKINGLY similar our groups are.
Not that I thought Arabs-Muslims were this exotic group from another world — but when you’re at a party and 90% of the attendees are Lawyer Doctors, it’s hard not to laugh and think, “What is this? Congregation Ohev Shalom: Baghdad?”
Yeganeh: I mean the last time I heard of an Arab Jew… it was Jesus.
Eitan: I would very much watch a movie where Adam Sandler plays Arab Jesus.
Yeganeh: This sounds like a deleted scene from Uncut Gems.
Eitan: BY THE TIME THIS GETS PRINTED, I WILL HAVE SEEN IT! So, readers, just imagine I made a REALLY good, topical response to that.
On that note, Adam Sandler, I assume you’re reading this, if you wanna come to our January 25th Shalom Habibi kickoff show at the JCC of Manhattan I can comp you a ticket.
Yeganeh: Eitan I don’t know who told you that you have the comp power but we must ask the JCC.
Eitan: You’re right. I take that last thing back. Adam Sandler, I assume you’re reading this, if you wanna come to our January 25th Shalom Habibi kickoff show at the JCC of Manhattan, I can ask them if they will comp you a ticket.
Yeganeh: What’s the most offensive thing I’ve said to you?
Eitan: One time I had to debunk a myth you told me about Hasidic men using coconut oil on their payos (those hair curls). That was pretty offensive to me for some reason.
What’s the word I commonly mispronounce that makes you the most offended?
Yeganeh: About two seconds ago you said “Eye Ran” instead of “Iran.” I just don’t understand that mistake. It’s like saying “Eyen dia” instead of “India.” Is it because they gave us all yoga?
Eitan: I actually think it’s because they gave us Priyanka Chopra. SHE CAN ALSO GET A COMP! IF YOU’RE FAMOUS, YOU CAN COME TO THIS SHOW ON ME! (If the JCC says it’s okay.)
Yeganeh: I’m pretty sure you made your parents pay so this really says a lot. Okay, let’s get serious. Do you think if teenage Eitan saw what you were doing today with our project… he’d be proud?
Eitan: That’s a confusing question to be honest. I grew up in a VERY Jewish *a little sheltered* community. I literally didn’t know non-Jews until I started doing comedy. On top of that, living in post-9/11 Jewish America meant, unfortunately, ZERO personal exposure to Muslims and Arabs. High school Eitan would be excited I was doing comedy and interested in the concept but would also PROBABLY be a little closed off to the experience of LISTENING to what people tell us on the tour. Half of these shows are a Q+A conversation with the comedians and the audience… so I don’t know how I’d take that part.
What about you? As an Iranian with family still over there, this tour has ACTUAL serious implications for you.
Yeganeh: I think how I grew up was very different. I had major Muslim and Christian influences but never Jewish. Which actually drew me closer to Jews… I felt like it was a way to rebel. My parents gave me two religions and I always talked about the third major monotheistic one.
Also traveling back into my teen years would be a much shorter trip. I was still a teenager two years ago… so in a way I’m just happy to be along for the ride.
In regards to Iran. I understand the dangers with Jewish, Iran, American, and Israel relations… it’s a risk I have to take. I’m not even sure what the consequences are yet.
Eitan: Elaborate on that?
Yeganeh: I think it’s selfish of me because the people who will probably get punished are my family rather than myself. I’m an American citizen, but I have family stuck in Iran. I just don’t want to become that cousin that caused anyone in Iran to get into trouble with law enforcement. We’ve already had enough pain with that.
Eitan: Does your family know about this show? Have they said anything?
Yeganeh: My mom and dad know. But they also know about my multiple UTIs in the past year… they’ve let go of caring about my decisions. My family in Iran thinks I go to NYU for journalism. They live in a bubble that my mom has filled with lies for them.
Eitan: One of my bubbes thinks I’m in Hamilton and I literally just never corrected her because that was easier than explaining the concept of digital media journalism.
Over the next few months we’re going to be doing these shows at a bunch of Jewish institutions like college Hillel houses and synagogues (as well as other Muslim, Arab, and interfaith venues). What do you think those shows are going to be like for you and the other non-Jewish comics? Are you looking to get anything specific out of those shows?
Yeganeh: I hope if anything those people can meet an Iranian. Within media there’s Maz Jobrani but rarely do we see a female Iranian comedian. I think I can offer a unique perspective and honestly I hope to meet someone who hates Iranians… I’d love to change their mind. This is all code for find a Jewish husband.
Do you think we are safe doing this?
Eitan: You know what’s crazy? I don’t know if that question was a joke or not but this has been something that has been brought up A LOT, especially with the recent uptick in anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city. Last year I hosted a charity fundraiser for the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh and it was surreal having conversations with my co-producer that went from “OOOH! YOU KNOW WHO IS FUNNY THAT WE SHOULD BOOK?” to “I spoke with the venue and we’re considering getting some security maybe?”
I trust the JCC has safety and everything like that MORE than under control — but the fact that it is 2020 and we’re still talking about VIOLENT bigotry is sort of soul crushing.
Yeganeh: We should have stunt doubles like Saddam Hussein. What was the doubles name, Latif? There has got to be a young Persian actress looking for extra work who can follow me around. And you… go to an open mic and pick your favorite Jew.
Eitan: You think Saddam Hussein’s body double was part of SAG/AFTRA?
Yeganeh: I can’t picture that as a non-union open call.
Eitan: Latif’s manager probably called him up and was like “LATIF! Baby, honey, sweetie. I got you an audition but I need you to really keep an open mind about it…”
Saddam Hussein’s body double was repped by CAA.
Yeganeh: On that note. Don’t shoot us. Come to Shalom Habibi at the JCC of Manhattan on January 25th at 7 p.m. Tickets available here.
We will try to get Latif booked. He may be dead. Worst case we have the 3rd best Saddam look alike… Yeganeh herself.
Eitan: FAMOUS PEOPLE! YOU CAN COME BUT LET ME KNOW AHEAD OF TIME SO I CAN TALK TO THE JCC ABOUT COMPS!
Yeganeh: I might shoot Eitan myself.
Learn more about Yeganeh, Eitan, and Shalom Habibi here.