By Erin Levi

«Eat your weenie!»

Never have I ever heard this expression in my life. Despite being (mostly) translated into English, Handa-Handa Theater’s «Am Yisrael Chai & Ronen» show still contained parts of Bukharian culture that eluded me, and which I dared not ask about—despite being met with an uproar of laughter.
«We are normal people who grew up in an abnormal environment,» the brothers said. «To eat your weenie – it was normal! To have five generations living in one apartment – normal!» they exclaimed.
While my upbringing was very different (despite being Jewish, and having immigrant grandparents), this sentiment felt relatable.
The two-and-a-half-hour show, produced by Bukharian Times Editor-in-Chief Rafael Nektalov and featuring comedic brothers Hay and Ronen Davidov from Israel, came to New York City for two weekends. It was a wild success, selling out each performance at the 472-seat Queens Theatre.

‘Dedicated to Bukharians in captivity’

This was the 18th edition of Handa-Handa Theatre, meaning the 18th time the Bukharian brothers brought their hilarious show, which touches upon Bukharian family dynamics, racism, Israel, and being Jewish, to New York and beyond. They did this in spite of the ongoing war in Gaza, dedicating this edition to the two brave Bukharians who remain held by Hamas in captivity, praying for the safe return of all 134 hostages. Behind them as they entered was a large Israeli flag with a paxta-style pattern in the two blue stripes, «because we are Israeli and Bukharian,» explained the duo.
What made this year’s edition even more remarkable was that it was the first time the show had ever been translated into English, explained Nektalov. «They’re trying to appeal to wider audiences,» he said, i.e. the youth. The translations were done in advance by the Davidov brothers and projected above; they weren’t always accurate when they adlibbed or riffed off the audience. Still, I was able to follow along, and laugh quite a lot!

‘My first Bukharian comedy show’

I caught up with one Bukharian American youth after the show, Yosef Davidov, a 19-year-old yeshiva student from Five Towns.
«This was my first comedy show and also first Bukharian comedy show,» he said. (His last name is just a coincidence.)
«I didn’t even know that Bukharians did stand-up comedy,» he said. «I’m quite surprised that Bukharians are accepting of it,» he added. I shared that Bukharian Jews were renowned entertainers and musicians in Central Asia, so it shouldn’t be too surprising. To that he said he didn’t know much history but is eager to learn.
What did he enjoy about the show? «The funniest parts for me were definitely the songs and the spot-on impressions, especially the ones of Bukharian grandpas,» said Yosef. «I’ll be honest, especially back then in Uzbekistan, beating your kids was completely normal. Hay and Ronen touched upon it. Kids were afraid of their fathers and the consequences of them acting out. Nowadays, they are fearless and do whatever they want. There’s no discipline.»
Overall, he appreciated the way the brothers engaged with the audience. «I felt they really tried to make sure everyone had a good time. They weren’t just speaking entirely in Bukharian or Russian or Hebrew, they also used some English, catering to everyone. The way they interacted with the crowd was fantastic, too. There was a lot of Jewish solidarity, too.»
While Yosef’s parents Lyubov and Ribi Davidov speak Bukharian, he doesn’t. But now, after seeing them laughing all night long, he wants to learn it, too. «There are a lot of nuances in the Bukharian language,» he said, which is why it’s so conducive to comedy. If only there was a class he could take…

‘Ashkenazis, Ashkenazis, Ashkenazis!’

As an Ashkenazi Jew, I was often on the outside of most jokes, except for when I was the punchline.
I had already been warned by my boss – and the show’s producer – Rafael Nektalov upon my arrival, who told me in the lobby that the Davidov brothers sing a song about Ashkenazis. He then asked me, «Do you know what we call you guys in Bukhari?» I shrugged my shoulders. «We call you ‘unripe melons’ because you are so pale looking,» said Nektalov. I was already laughing, and the show hadn’t even begun!
«Have you noticed that when a Bukharian passes away, no Bukharian comes to visiting people sitting Shiva during the day?» Hay asked Ronen. «Everyone arrives in the evening for Shiva because there is food. Ashkenazis [however] don’t hold memorials in the evening,» Hay continued. «Ashkenazis don’t understand our traditions at all and we don’t understand their customs, and so we wrote a special song about it.»
Most of the song revolved around food: «We eat lamb, and they eat dairy food. We eat osh plov, they eat buckwheat.» And then they had a line that cracked me up: «We’re at weddings, they’re at home in the dark.» It’s so true! There ain’t no party like a Bukharian party – and, now I can also safely say, there ain’t no comedy show like a Bukharian comedy show.

‘Grand Finale – A Dynasty of Musicians’

The show culminated with a gathering of some of the greatest living Bukharian Jewish performers — and several of them, as it happens, are related. One of those people on stage was Nargis Malaeva, a nurse who moonlights as a singer. She also happens to be the daughter of renowned singer Muhabbat Shamayeva, who was there, too. «She’s very famous still,» explained Nargis. Despite being Jewish, she’s very famous among Muslims. «She’s like their Madonna. They’d stand in line if they could just to get her autograph,» she said.
On the stage, each person had a chance to speak, and explain with pride how they’re related to the Davidov brothers, and Muhabbat and Nargis even sang a traditional folk song together.
«There’s Jewish humor, and then there’s Bukharian Jewish humor,» Nargis explained. «They’re absolutely different,» she said. «In Bukharian, one word can have 10 different meanings,» which makes it 10 times funnier, I’m told. «Only Bukharians will understand our jokes,» which tend to be about «daily Bukharian life» and feature lots of dirty humor and curses. (That, I’d say, is universal humor!)
Her favorite moment? The scene where a toothless lady, played by Hay, tries to speak at a memorial, and inadvertently arouses the Rabbi, played by Ronen, who moans loudly out of desire.
«I’m a singer, and I recently became observant,» said Nargis. According to the holy book, she said, women aren’t allowed to sing in front of men because it might arouse them, leading them to fantasize about another woman instead of their wife.
«Basically, there was a scene where an elderly woman wants to speak at a memorial service. She said she wishes to say something about the person who passed away, but the Rabbi said, ‘No, no, no, no. In Jewish law, women are not allowed to speak in front of men because they can get aroused.’»
«They say a woman’s voice can arouse a man and when he goes home to sleep with his wife, he has an image of a different woman,» the singer explained. But the old lady speaks anyway, and, to the audience’s surprise, he humps her leg.
Nargis found this scene particularly funny. And so it was especially brave of her to sing with her mother at the end of the evening — a delightful culmination of familial talent and Bukharian heritage, leaving both hearts uplifted, and spirits united and proud.