She may have appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm as the Orthodox Jewish daughter of a doctor, and spent her childhood in a religious New York primary school, but Iris Bahr is no prude.
The Israeli/American comedian’s best known character is Svetlana, a Russian prostitute to the stars. Her latest one-woman show, Dai (Hebrew for “enough”), sees her playing 10 different characters in a Tel Aviv café before a suicide bombers enters.
And her recent memoir, Dork Whore: My Travels through Asia as a Twenty-Year-Old Pseudo-Virgin, is a detailed account about her attempt to lose her virginity while travelling in South-East Asia after two years serving as a sergeant in the Israeli army. A “pseudo-virgin” because she did have a near-miss with an Israeli paratrooper before her big trip.
“I always had great stories from my trip that I enjoyed telling,” she explains during a telephone conversation from Israel. “I started writing it as a play. I realised there’s a lot more here. It’s about the coming of age that I went through on that trip. I enjoyed being vulnerable and sharing my neurosis.”
Now in her early 30s, living in LA and currently single, Bahr has still been reluctant to let her parents — her father is a banker and her mother is a university registrar — read her book. “My parents are very honest,” she says. “I didn’t think they’d want to read it either.”
But suffice to say the writer achieved what she set out to do in the book, despite insisting that the sex was not the only positive outcome of her trip. “It had to be done,” she says of losing her virginity. “But that wasn’t the enjoyment part. It was more like, ‘It’s done, great’. He kind of fell in love with me and I felt good, but the intimacy was difficult for me. He was definitely oversized, which was difficult in itself. He was the first in that journey of intimacy. I had to do it in steps and I’m still learning.”
Bahr agrees that her neurosis surrounding sex might have been linked to feeling like an outsider when growing up.
“I think it’s a whole part of being socially accepted,” she says. “Alienation is a theme in my work. I travelled everywhere. I’d sometimes wake up at night and not feel like I was able to identify where I was. That is why I can morph into different people. We were always moving to different places and, because of my parents’ divorce, I never quite had the opportunity to have a proper childhood. In a sense, everything happened later for me in the US. There, people lose their virginity at 11. I felt I had an old soul in a young body.”
The child of non-religious Jews, she was sent to an Orthodox Jewish school in the Bronx, New York, before moving to Israel when she was 12. This was a confusing time for Bahr that has informed her work as a performer who plays many different characters.
“I’ve always had a splintered identity,” she explains. “When I was younger, my parents led this secular Jewish life but sent me to an Orthodox Jewish school in the Bronx, so I had a double identity. At school, I wanted the kids to think I was religious because I wanted to be accepted, then I would come home and eat pork rinds... just kidding. When I moved to Israel, everyone there was so secular. As a student, I found myself being a believer. It was stressful. But as with everything, it served me in the long run. Everything serves me in the long run.”
The other advantage of her upbringing — specifically, attending a frum primary school — was that it helped bag her “best TV experience” as Rachel Heineman on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.
“I went to an audition and a few hours later they cast me right off the bat,” she says.
“I had to improvise with him [Larry David] and all the producers were watching. That is where my Orthodox upbringing came in. I knew all the lingo. It really contributed.
“We got along really well. He was amazing to work with. It’s all improvised, it really is. I had no idea what was going on. I only knew my storyline, but I had no idea Larry would start talking about edible underwear in my scene.
“We had a great time. Larry David is a brilliant man. He likes it when people around him are funny. Normally you have the stars of the show that are funny and you have the straight people, but the brilliance of this show and of Seinfeld is that everyone was funny in their own right. He lets everyone shine.”
Now the former medical student has her own project, performing her one-woman show in locations all over the world. After a long stint in Tel Aviv and last year’s Edinburgh Festival, she has been invited by the Jewish Community Centre for London to perform next week at Rada.
“I play 10 different people in a café in Tel Aviv moments before a suicide bomber enters,” she says. “I play several characters, from a gay German furniture designer to a Palestinian professor who is trying to steer her son away from extremist views. It’s not a political piece.
“It has universal themes and human stories. It’s just about people trying to live their lives, and their lives come to an end,” she explains of the part-funny, part-serious show for which the Russian prostitute is also revived.
But were her parents allowed to see this one? Despite an initial anxiety of her choice of profession — particularly after a stint at medical school — they seem to have come round to the idea.
“At first, of course, I got the usual: ‘Why aren’t you going to grad school?’ The minute you start making a living out of it, everything changes,” she says. “My dad has been to see my show at least 60 times.”
Dai, presented by the JCC, is at the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre at Rada, Malet Street, London WC1 on July 16, at 7.30pm. Tel: 020 7908 4800
Appearing as an Orthodox woman in Larry David’s cult sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm
“He was amazing to work with. I had no idea Larry would start talking about edible underwear in my scene”
“I’ve always liked immersing myself in a different culture. Even as a kid in Italy I would do imitations of the tour guides”
“I am a believer”