(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.