We invited comedian and artist Natan Badalov, a proud Bukharian Jew, to share some of his childhood memories. He was featured on Adult Swim, New York Comedy Festival, Funnymmigrants Comedy Festival, and others. For more info, read his bio or follow him and his eyebrows on Instagram and Tik Tok @natanbadalov.
I used to live in Israel for a bit. I didn’t plan on it. I was ten at my grandparents’ house in Dimona that summer. I woke up one morning, and the TV was already on. Honestly, I saw what I thought was some boring action movie. It was a still shot of two towers burning.
‘This is boring as hell.’ I changed the channel, and the same image popped up.
‘Dammit. The T.V.’s broken.’
I could hear my grandpa’s radio. It was louder than usual. Usually a jovial guy, he came out of his bedroom somber. He looked at the T.V.
‘Good thing you’re not home,’ he said.
‘Home?’ I thought.
My eyes widened as I looked back at the TV. My mom called from New York soon after. She told me that all flights were canceled until further notice and that I was going to have to stay there for a while. Since my grandparents didn’t want me to sit at home and do nothing, they enrolled me in the local public school. I kept reminding them that I barely knew Hebrew, to which they replied, ‘You’ll learn.’
Complaints never really worked on my grandparents. They were Jews raised in communist-run Uzbekistan off the back end of World War Two. They’ve probably seen or heard some stuff that they wouldn’t ever talk about. The first couple of weeks of summer, my grandma would cook me eggs in the morning. I always liked to dip the egg in the yolk with some bread and leave the egg whites untouched. The whites looked gross, felt gross; I didn’t want to be around them. I got away with that for about two days until she stopped cooking me eggs.
‘I’m not wasting any more food on you.’ So, I started to eat the egg whites.
Grandma 1, Me 0.
I was prepping for my first day of school and had all my supplies ready: pens, pencils, folders, and binders. I had everything but a backpack. My grandpa was known to be a cheap guy, but I had no idea its extent until that day. I looked over my supplies, and my grandpa walked over with a plastic shopping bag.
I grabbed it and looked at it for a few seconds.
‘What is this?’
‘Just put your supplies in here.’
I put the supplies in the bag and took a few steps with it. My grandma came out of the kitchen.
‘What is this? What’s in the bag?’
She grabbed my shopping bag and shot a look at my grandpa.
‘Our grandson is not going to school like this! He looks like some homeless kid!’
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about! A bag is a bag! It doesn’t matter how the stuff gets there!’
To a certain extent, my granddad was right. A shopping bag is technically the same as a backpack. The backpack industry was probably some big racket promoted by major corporations. I can see him just picketing outside a Jansport factory screaming, ‘ALL BAGS MATTER!’
The next day, my grandma and I went to the local market. At these bazaars, there’s always a guy for everything: a spice guy, rice guy, a lotion guy, etc. We went to the backpack guy, who also moonlighted as the apple guy. He was this scrawny Israeli dude with massive bags under his eyes. He looked like he saw death and didn’t mind it. He had hundreds, if not thousands, of backpacks around him.
‘100 shekels. Any bag.’
I saw this one green Jansport in the back. It had these autumn leaves on it that caught my eye. He grabbed it with his stick and handed it over. I put it on my back and noticed it was pretty bulky, but it had a cool enough design and, most importantly, was a Jansport. My grandma handed him the money.
‘You want apple?’ he asked.
‘No, just the bag. Thank you.’ My grandma replied. I went back home equipped.
At this point, it was the end of September, and school had already started. So when I went in there, I was introduced to the class on some random morning. The teacher put me in front of everyone and did a whole introduction for me in Hebrew that I didn’t understand. She stopped talking and looked at me for a second. Oh, I thought. That’s my queue. I gotta think quick.
‘Shalom, Natan.’ The class replied.
Nailed it. I barely knew Hebrew, but I knew Russian, and there was this kid named Daniel that I played soccer with earlier that summer. He also spoke Russian and helped translate things the best he could.
‘Why did you not go back home?’ He asked.
‘The twin towers,’ I replied.
‘Oh, wow. That’s so cool. You’re like a refugee,’ he said. I was getting street cred over a terrorist attack when I wasn’t even there. I stayed quiet most of the day until it was English class. My time to shine. The teacher started the class with a basic question.
‘What day is it today?’
I shot my arm up.
‘Today is Monday.’
Random heads turned to see me with my cool-ass American accent. Hell yeah, I thought, I’m gonna ball out in this class.
‘No, today is Sunday.’
I forgot. I was in Israel. Their school week starts on Sundays. The students looked back at me, confused as if to say, ‘That is one articulate idiot.’
As the class continued, everyone turned back to the teacher except for one kid. I don’t know what I said, but this kid was mad-dogging me like I stole his lunch that day.
‘Ani aharog ot-ha.’ He mouthed my way.
I had to ask Daniel what that meant.
‘He said he wants to kill you.’
‘I don’t know, but he wants to fight you after school.’
I don’t know why he wanted to fight me. Maybe it was because I was American, or maybe it was just because he was an angry kid. Regardless, I had no time to psychoanalyze this kid’s motivations. I had a fight I needed to prep for.
Here in the States, if a fight were to break out between kids, that would be a big deal. Parents would be called, therapy would be scheduled, feelings would be talked out. They’d even use you as an example of bad behavior and reprimand you in front of the other kids so that they won’t step out of line. In Israel, fights just happened. Bombs went off above them every day. Constant threats of the country not existing changes your priorities. You wanna fight? Fight. Just don’t bother anyone about it.
The only problem is I’d never been in a fight before. I’d been in tussles. A tussle is where you eye the other person down and push each other before someone more zen than you breaks it up and goes, ‘it’s not worth it, bro.’
School ended, and my chest was pumping. I went outside to the back of the school. There was already a crowd that formed around my opponent. I saw this dude shadow boxing, doing some weird Krav Maga stuff. It’s like he already served in the IDF. If I had something in my stomach, I would’ve shat it out right then and there.
‘Yallah nu?’ Someone yelled.
The tension was building. Both of us were waiting for the other’s first move. He took one step towards me. I took a rock from the ground, threw it in the air to distract him, and bolted. I didn’t look back. I could hear groans of disappointment fading as I stayed in stride, beads of sweat covering my already aching body. Cowardly move? Absolutely. But I didn’t sign up for this. He was two weight classes above me, and I didn’t even speak the language. I’m a full advocate of running from fists when you don’t agree to them. I made it back to my grandparents’ house drenched in sweat.
‘What happened?’ My grandma asked.
‘Some kid wanted to fight me, so I ran away as fast as I could.’ I replied.
My grandpa, eyes fixated on the T.V., belts out, ‘You know, you would’ve run faster if you had that plastic bag.’