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A Bukharian comedian mines his Jewish identity in his debut standup solo show

(New York Jewish Week) – On paper, at least, it seems like Natan Badalov had a pretty typical American Jewish childhood. He went to a Jewish day school for elementary and middle school, had a bar mitzvah and graduated from a public high school.

And yet, despite growing up in a city that’s home to more than 1.5 million Jews, Badalov, 31, always felt like something of an outsider.

Badalov’s family came from Uzbekistan in the early 1990s, as part of a wave of Bukharian immigrants who fled Central Asia after the fall of the Soviet Union. While most Bukharian families settled in the heavily Jewish Queens neighborhoods of Forest Hills and Rego Park, the Badalovs moved to the remarkably diverse neighborhood of Jackson Heights, which is technically only a few miles from away but may as well have been on another planet. 

These days, there are some 50,000 Bukharian Jews in New York, though for much of Badalov’s childhood he was isolated from them. He attended a Jewish day school in Manhattan, where he said many of his classmates had never interacted with someone who wasn’t Ashkenazi. Some people made fun of his looks, and he said some adults there did not allow him to question the meaning of God and faith.

By the time he started at Forest Hills High School — which had a large population of Bukharian Jewish students — he felt alienated from them as well. “I had a thing for a long time where, because of religious trauma, I would push away from Judaism,” Badalov told the New York Jewish Week. “But it always just tends to come back. You can’t avoid your problems.”

Recently, Badalov, who still lives in Queens, dated a rabbi, who asked him all sorts of questions about his Jewish upbringing and Jewish identity. And while the relationship didn’t work out, the experience inspired him to think deeply about his feelings about Judaism and why he pushed it away.

After performing stand up comedy as a side gig around the city for the last seven years, the intense period of introspection inspired him to create his first-ever solo standup show “Connect the Dots,” which he will debut Nov. 8 at the Astoria venue Q.E.D. as part of the New York Comedy Festival. “It’s about me trying to evaluate everything that happened — why I dated a rabbi and why it didn’t work out,” he said. “It’s very Jewish.” 

Ahead of next week’s set, the New York Jewish Week caught up with Badalov to talk about what inspired his debut show, how his identity has evolved and whether or not he’s the “Martin Luther King of Bukharian comedians,” as he calls it. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

New York Jewish Week: What inspired you to create this show?

Natan Badalov: It’s about me trying to find my Jewish identity. It was inspired by a common thing with every immigrant family, where there’s, like, that pressure to get married. I dated a rabbi for a few years and it didn’t work out. Heartbreak is a great inspiration for everything, really. 

What I talk about in the show is about how when you date someone, they want you to be part of their life. It makes sense, you’re in a relationship. For her, being a rabbi meant going to services and being more observant. I wasn’t — I was just content with being as religious as I am now, which is just culturally Jewish. That’s where we would butt heads, usually about the future. 

We dated for about a year and a half. It was during the pandemic. We got together because we both had some resentment towards Judaism. A lot of Jewish people thought I was Muslim and all this other stuff. For her, a lot of more religious people didn’t respect that she was a female rabbi. 

But the relationship made me start thinking about my Jewish identity more. She would ask me if I would raise my kids Jewish and I’ve never been asked that before. Thinking about it, I said “No,  I wouldn’t do it because of the trauma that I went through. I wouldn’t want to put them through that.” She would say, “That’s so sad.” Those conversations made me try to understand how much I value or whether I value Judaism in my life at all. I had never asked myself those questions.

What do you mean by religious trauma?

Growing up, I went to day school from second to eighth grade. I had a little uniform, I wore a yarmulke, I put on tefillin. I would visit my relatives in Israel from time to time, so it was a very Jewish environment. 

But being Bukharian and coming to the U.S., there was always this kind of tension between me and Ashkenazi Jewish people. I grew up in Ashkenazi spaces and American Jewish spaces. There would be certain instances where I would have to explain myself and explain who I am and where I’m from. 

One time, I was followed in the synagogue, which was pretty fucked up and confusing — it’s something with the eyebrows. I think that makes people question things. I went to Forest Hills High School, which is basically half Bukharian. That was my first introduction to being around “Oh my god, everybody got the same eyebrows,” which was crazy. 

Because of stuff like that, as I got older, I started feeling more and more defensive and on edge when I was going to synagogue. It pushed me away from it. Even to this day, I still feel that way, but writing this show has really helped me process it. 

Now I’m comfortable calling myself “just Jewish.” That was something I wasn’t even comfortable with for a long time. I would say to myself, “Well, I’m not even practicing, so what’s the point of calling myself Jewish.” But I accepted that just because I’m not doing those things doesn’t mean that it’s not part of my life. 

Do you feel a responsibility to represent Bukharian Jews in comedy? 

I used to get upset like, “Why don’t you people know about Bukharian Jews?” But I’ve come to terms with it. 

I don’t know many Bukharian comedians. There are some that do sketches and stuff on TikTok but in terms of standup, I don’t know of any in America or New York. There have been Bukharian people that want to do stand up and they’ve been messaging me asking for advice. So it’s good to see that, there’s a desire to do it. I’m always down to help. I don’t really want to be like, I don’t know, the Martin Luther King of Bukharian comedians. It’s great if people identify or connect to me in that way, but there’s a lot of pros and cons to that. Being Bukharian is not my only thing or my claim to fame. It’s just one part of me.

How did you get into comedy?

The end of 2016. I always wanted to do it; I would always just write the material but I thought everyone did that. I would go to open mics and just watch for a long time, way too long. It got to the point where people kind of knew me — comics usually just do their set and leave, so they all assumed I was a comedian who might be on after them. Eventually I had to do a set.

My first set was about me being a Broadway usher at the Friedman Theatre. I forgot it all. I forgot every single thing. I just started pointing at everyone and just going like, “Yo, what’s up?” I said what’s up to every person in the room, about 15 people. By the 15th person. I was done, that was it. I just walked off. But now I’m here with a set. 

Natan Badalov will perform “Connect the Dots” as part of the New York Comedy Festival at Q.E.D. Astoria on Nov. 8 at 9 p.m. Get tickets for $15. In response to the Israel-Hamas war, Badalov is donating a portion of the proceeds to the Global Empowerment Mission, a charity that helps affected families receive food, clothing and medicine.

The post A Bukharian comedian mines his Jewish identity in his debut standup solo show appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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On Explosive Northern Front, Hezbollah Lurks; IDF Conducts Precise Defense

UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) patrol in the village of Khiam, near the border with Israel, in southern Lebanon, July 12, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Aziz Taher

JNS.orgAs Israel prepares for the strong possibility of a resumption of war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli Defense Forces is also currently in a heightened state of alert and preparedness along the border with Lebanon, responding to the continuous threats posed by Hezbollah.

Since Oct. 7, the IDF has deployed significant military resources, including artillery, tanks and engineering corps, along the Lebanese border, striking Hezbollah anti-tank missile squads and other terrorists whenever they are detected, either after an attack or preparing for one.

This low-intensity conflict when compared to Gaza has resulted in some 90 casualties for Hezbollah and nine Israeli casualties—six military personnel and three civilians.

Several Israeli homes and military bases have sustained heavy damage from Hezbollah strikes since Oct. 7, and tens of thousands of Israeli residents from areas near the border with Lebanon remain evacuated, displaced from their homes by the threat of the Radwan Hezbollah elite terrorist unit.

In response, the IDF has employed a defensive-responsive posture aimed at protecting Israeli territory from Hezbollah’s aggression but not escalating the situation into a full-scale war front at this time.

Its approach is characterized by a reactive rather than proactive stance. Operations are tailored to respond to specific threats and attacks from Hezbollah, avoiding initiating aggression. This goal remains to protect civilian lives and property, as well as to make sure that Hezbollah cannot surprise the north as Hamas did the south. Still, the decision of any expanded war efforts in Lebanon remains up to the war cabinet.

Hezbollah’s tactics, meanwhile, involve embedding its operations within Lebanese civilian areas; using southern Shi’ite villages as bases of attack; firing anti-tank missiles at Israeli northern homes and military positions; and continuing to pose a serious and persistent threat.

The question of whether the Radwan unit, which has murder and kidnap squads much like Hamas’s Nukhba unit, could breach the Israeli border and conduct attacks has no clear answer at this time, although the IDF is present at the border in large numbers and has proven effective at detecting Radwan unit movements in real-time.

Hezbollah’s terror tactics not only endanger Lebanese civilians but are designed to complicate the IDF’s response—a familiar use of human shielding that Hamas employs as well in Gaza.

In this explosive situation, the IDF currently exercises restraint in its counterstrikes, relying on precise intelligence to target terrorist threats while minimizing civilian casualties and collateral damage.

UNIFIL ineffective in curbing provocation

The role of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in challenging Hezbollah’s flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which bans Hezbollah from operating in Southern Lebanon, is nonexistent.

Worse yet, Hezbollah has been actively using UNIFIL as human shields, launching attacks on Israel in some cases from tens of meters from UNIFIL positions.

UNIFIL’s ineffectiveness in curbing Hezbollah’s activities is self-evident, highlighting the limitations of international peacekeeping forces in such scenarios.

Despite this, the IDF continues to remain in contact with UNIFIL and has been transmitting its concern over Hezbollah’s destabilizing activities with no tangible results.

So far, Israel’s policy on the Lebanon border is a delicate balance between essential defense and cautious restraint. But it remains unclear how long this can continue since northern residents will not return to a persistent Hezbollah threat to their lives in the new, post-Oct. 7 reality, and the IDF cannot remain fully deployed in the north indefinitely.

The result is a paradox that appears to suggest difficult decisions in the future by the Israeli war cabinet if the north is to be sustainable and its residents granted a new sense of security.

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The Determination of Israel’s Reservists

IDF soldiers are seen at rest stop near the border with Gaza. Photo: Reuters/Jim Hollander

JNS.orgWho is the Israel soldier? They can be of any age and profession. It may have been a long time since they held a weapon. Many of them are at Tze’elim, one of the IDF’s largest bases, just across the border from Gaza on yellow sand.

When I meet them, they are waiting, as the brief ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was still holding. A short time later, Hamas broke the truce, attacked Israel with rockets, and the fighting began again.

These soldiers are older and more emotional than you would imagine. Their intentions are clear: “Never Again.” The Oct. 7 massacre will never be permitted to reoccur. Israel must be freed from the nightmare of Hamas.

In Tze’elim, rows of barracks and numerous disorderly tents house thousands of soldiers of all kinds. We meet with a group of them from Brigade 252. They are soldiers from the miluim—the reserves. They have completed their three-year military service—or two years, if they are women—but they all keep their “miluim bag” under the bed. If the phone rings, as happened on Oct. 7, they rush to the front, whether they are in Tel Aviv or traveling in Japan, whether they are left-wing or right-wing, professors or taxi drivers. They tear themselves away from the operating room and the shop, the lawyer’s office and the bus they drive.

Commander A. is thin, with gray hair and a kind smile. He is religious. On the morning of Oct. 7, he was in synagogue without a telephone. Someone told him “something never seen before is happening.” A. rushed to his collection point in the south and has yet to return home.

On Oct. 7, the reserves were immediately thrown into the battle to retake the kibbutzim that had been attacked and massacred by Hamas terrorists. They hunted down the Hamas men who remained and collected the wounded and dead Israelis in the fields and on the roads. A. closes his eyes. He has seen hell.

The 252 was then sent into the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, home to 50,000 inhabitants who serve as human shields for what is essentially a massive rocket launching pad. The reservists were trained in a mock-up of a Gaza city. They practiced how to enter, shoot, exit, climb, attack and go through tunnels full of TNT. They trained against ambushes, snipers and RPGs.

A. says that, when they went into Beit Hanoun itself, “We had to quickly learn a lesson: Beit Hanoun’s ambush is in his heart, not its outer circles. The terrorists let you enter easily. There’s a row of houses, two or three more, and that’s where Hamas is waiting for you—where you don’t expect it, in civilian structures.”

A. explains, “If we decide to destroy a structure and there are civilians inside, we warn the civilian population. … There are precise rules for evaluating whether we have to act, whether it’s essential because if we don’t act, the lives of soldiers or Israeli civilians are in danger. We try to stop Hamas’s continuous use of human shields by moving the civilians out completely.”

A. is happy to say, “Of civilians killed in Ben Hanoun, the number is zero.”

Israeli soldiers, however, were killed. Maj. Moshe, a 50-year-old engineer who works in high-tech, explained, “An army generally advances on a territory that, once occupied, is the starting point of your next step. But here, through the tunnels under the ground, suddenly you find the enemy shooting at you from behind.”

Thus, great efforts were made to locate the tunnels. “With the use of sophisticated instruments, and also sometimes suffering unexpected explosions given that Hamas’s specialty is to mine everything with large quantities of explosives, we quickly understood that the tunnels were a very sophisticated network, not holes of various sizes dug here and there, but an enormous spider web that converged on the urban center.”

“The structures used by Hamas, which they protected with human shields, included a mosque, a school, a hospital, a public swimming pool, civilian homes, children’s rooms, even their beds. There were weapons everywhere,” he says.

As a result of the truce, Moshe states, some of the evacuated civilians have begun to return. “We can block them,” he says, “but not attack them or approach them. There is a truce.”

Nonetheless, I point out, three soldiers were wounded two days ago in an attack. “True,” Moshe replies, “and we returned fire. If we are in danger we respond.” He notes that some of the returnees are Hamas terrorists, “but we are in a truce, we act according to the rules of defense.”

“We have two ways of being at war: offensive and defensive,” he continues. “The offensive is much easier: You face the enemy. You can move. Defense is unnerving, even dangerous, especially when there are civilians around.”

However, he says, there is much to do, even during a truce. “For example, we had completely dismantled the explosive systems inside a building, and then we realized that everything had been mined again.”

Hamas, he says, is “easier to deal with than endure while you can’t move. So, we wait for orders. The mission is to destroy Hamas and bring the kidnapped people home. That and nothing else.”

Now that the soldiers are back at war, the humanitarian issue is certainly important to them; not because of what the Biden administration tells them, but because that is what an Israeli soldier is.

First and foremost, however, they are Jews who know exactly what was done to their people on Oct. 7 and will continue their war of justice and survival. One of them tells me, “Yes, I feel when we fight, feel it physically, that our kidnapped citizens are not far away, and I fight for them too with all my heart. This is the most just war of all time.”

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The Moral Bankruptcy of IfNotNow

IfNotNow supporters at a rally in New York City. Photo: IfNotNow via Facebook.

JNS.orgA few days ago, I attended a webinar entitled “Jews for Ceasefire,” presented by the young Jewish anti-Zionists of IfNotNow. It was hosted by an earnest young woman named Gen (IfNotNow activists often don’t use their surnames), who began by reaffirming what the group calls its main goal: to “end American support for Israeli apartheid.” She went on to emphasize that all the positions taken by IfNotNow are “deeply grounded in Jewish tradition.” To prove the point, she called on Rabbi Monica Gomery, who led a prayer and enthusiastically praised the group’s work.

Next up was Noa, a young woman who said, “I’m going to root us in the moment.” “The moment,” however, did not include Hamas’s Oct. 7 genocidal attack on Israeli civilians. Noa said nothing whatsoever about it. Instead, she presented a litany of alleged Israeli abuses inflicted on Palestinians. Her omission appeared to be deliberate, as it helped portray the IDF’s defensive military operations in Gaza as an unprovoked act of aggression.

Following Noa, there was a testimonial from a young man named Boaz. He made what appeared to him to be a confession that his grandfather helped perpetrate the “nakba.” What he meant was that his grandfather was a soldier in Israel’s War of Independence. For Boaz, his father’s participation in Israel’s successful effort to prevent a second Holocaust was a source of shame, not pride. As he explained, he was trying to work through his guilt. A poster behind him bore the slogan, “Palestine will be free,” a popular euphemism for that second Holocaust.

After Boaz’s self-flagellation came the highlight of the webinar—an appearance by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Tlaib has been an ally of IfNotNow for some time. In fact, the group’s leadership began collaborating with Tlaib before she was elected to Congress. During her presentation, Tlaib referred to them as her “siblings.”

Sporting a t-shirt that said, “Justice from Detroit to Gaza”—a slogan that falsely connects Israel to police brutality controversies in the U.S.—Tlaib declared that Congress must demand a ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas and “stop funding war crimes.” Like her IfNotNow supporters, Tlaib conveniently made no mention of the Oct. 7 attack or the hostages held by Hamas.

It apparently did not bother the leaders of IfNotNow that the House of Representatives had just censured Tlaib for her genocidal call to free “Palestine from the river to the sea.” Indeed, IfNotNow leaders repeat the same call in their training sessions. That training also endorses the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to economically strangle Israel, as well as the so-called “right of return,” which aims to demographically eliminate the Jewish state.

It seems that IfNotNow leaders are unperturbed that Tlaib has characterized Hamas’s rampage of crimes against humanity as justified “resistance” to an “apartheid state.” These Jews, it appears, are perfectly happy to align themselves with someone who supports murdering large numbers of Jews. They are also unbothered by the fact that Tlaib posted a video on social media that says, “Joe Biden supported the genocide of the Palestinian people”—a genocide that is not happening. One of IfNotNow’s campaigns calling for a ceasefire is entitled, “No Genocide in Our Name.” Having erased Hamas’s genocidal attack, IfNotNow appears to have fabricated one.

In addition, IfNotNow has officially endorsed Tlaib’s statement, “You cannot claim to hold progressive values yet back Israel’s apartheid government.” To them and other young Jews who clasp hands with Tlaib and her compatriots, condemnation of Israel is the sine qua non of being a progressive, and a policy of racist exclusion must be imposed on any Jew who doesn’t get with the program. IfNotNow looks to Tlaib to lead the way, even though, like antisemites throughout history, she is happy to exploit them and eventually discard them once they have outlived their usefulness.

Most tellingly, IfNotNow has been unfazed by Tlaib’s open antisemitism, such as her claim that American supporters of Israel “forgot what country they represent,” clearly invoking the “dual loyalty” libel. She has also engaged in antisemitic conspiracy theories, talking about the “people behind the curtain” who are exploiting victims “from Gaza to Detroit.”

Worst of all, Tlaib is the only member of Congress to call for an end to the Jewish state. It should not be surprising that IfNotNow is fine with that, as they proudly state that they take no position on Israel’s right to exist.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has perfectly and accurately described such people as “Hamas’s useful idiots.”

The origins of IfNotNow’s ideology are obvious. Like Tlaib and many other “social justice” ideologues, IfNotNow divides people into two groups: Oppressors and the oppressed. Depending on your racial or ethnic identity, you by definition belong to one or the other. There are no gradations, no nuance and only one permissible narrative. Thus, decades of genocidal Arab violence go unmentioned, including the Oct. 7 massacre. There is only Israeli oppression and Palestinian “resistance.”

It would be a mistake to believe that IfNotNow is an inconsequential outlier. They have nine chapters across the United States and an office on K Street in Washington, D.C. The webinar I attended had more than 1,600 attendees.

They also have powerful friends and an enormous amount of money. According to NGO Monitor, IfNotNow has received grants from the wealthy Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Tides Foundation, the New Israel Fund’s Progressive Jewish Fund and the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

All that, plus support from a member of Congress. It seems that racism, hate and support for genocide pay off.

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