CNN’s ‘United Shades’ visits Great Neck, Roslyn

NY State Sen. Anna Kaplan and W. Kamau Bell,

Originally appeared in Newsday August 28, 2020, written by Verne Gay

W. Kamau Bell wraps the 5th season of his Emmy-winning “United Shades of America” Sunday right here on LI. 

Taped last fall in Great Neck and Roslyn, the first half of the finale, about Iranian Americans (CNN at 9), also features a familiar face: Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck), who represents the 7th State Senate District, which stretches from Hicksville to Great Neck.

Kaplan — the first Iranian American to be elected to either the Assembly or Senate, where she’s served since 2018 — recalled recently that when the program approached her, “I said we Iranians are very big on eating and like to show our love of food, so ‘I’d love to have you come over for the Shabbos [Friday-night Sabbath] dinner.'” 

 In an interview, Bell called the Oct. 4 dinner with Kaplan and her family “great fun,” while the food (all kosher) certainly didn’t hurt either. (For the record, Kaplan served the Tehrani and Nash Didani styles of Gondi — sometimes called “Persian Matzo Balls” — which are made of chickpeas and chicken, sangak flatbread, and roasted chicken with a saffron rice Persian-style crust, or “tahdig,” on the bottom. Baklava, cut fruit and berries for dessert.) 

A particularly smart and compassionate cable news show, “United Shades” has spent five seasons exploring American culture with open eyes and heart. (The second part of Sunday’s finale, at 10, is on Los Angeles’ desperate homeless population.)

No departure this Sunday, which effortlessly countermands — per program notes — “the conventional American imagination” about Iran dating back to the hostage crisis, and by association, its immigrants, many of them Jews like Kaplan who arrived here in 1979 as a 13-year-old refugee.

 “Of all the people to demonize,” said Bell in an interview, referring to those LIers profiled Sunday. “They believe more in the American dream than Americans born and raised here.

Parts of the episode were also shot at Dianne’s Bakery on Bryant Ave. in Roslyn,  where Bell interviewed some regular customers — in this instance, Iranian-American supporters of President Donald Trump. In that segment, viewers meet Shahab Solyemoni, Kourosh Rium, Ely Sakhai, Joseph Seogh, Henry Sasson and Michael Hakimi. Each of them emphatically make Bell’s particular point as well.

“American is the land of opportunity,” says Seogh during the segment. “It truly is that.” 

 While noting that her district is certainly “diverse” — it includes 12,000-15,000 Iranian Americans, most of them Jewish refugees like Kaplan who arrived after the 1979 revolution — Kaplan concedes that “I wouldn’t say they don’t [all] vote for me but I wouldn’t say they [all] do. Even in this community, people are divided. ” 

    But “for me, the message” of Sunday’s finale should easily resonate across that political spectrum: “I still can’t believe how blessed I am,” she says. “A political refugee who came to this country and to have the opportunities I’ve had? There are still days that I pinch myself.” 

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