September 21, 2019

Bat-el Borenstein: The Pint-Sized Star

Bat-el Borenstein was 4 years old when older girls in her neighborhood started to make fun of her. They pointed at her and called her a midget. She ran back home to her mother, a “Russian Jew who was not to be messed with,” who dismissed the girl’s tears and instructed her to go back outside and not return until she had made two friends.

“That was the foundation of who I am today,” Bat-el says in her TEDx talk, derived from her hilarious and poignant one-woman show called “I am Bat-El” that she performs around the world. 

Born in Romania, Bat-el, 30, has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism that means she has disproportionately short limbs. At just 4 feet tall, what she lacks in height she makes up for with a joie de vivre that infects everyone she meets. 

The day her mother demanded she go back outside, Bat-el met two girls who remained her best friends through elementary school. That anecdote notwithstanding, Bat-el said she is barely aware of being different. Her mother always believed that “anything anyone else can do, you can, should and would do better.” 

“I saw supermodels on TV and thought, ‘Oh, I can do that,’” she said, dramatically flicking a strand of her long, curly hair over her shoulder and laughing. 

While the runway was not written in the stars for Bat-el, being a star of some kind was. “I always wanted to do something that involved me standing onstage and other people watching,” she said. At 11, she landed a minor role as a street urchin in a stage version of “Oliver Twist” at Israel’s famous Habima Theatre. 

Five years later, she presented herself at an Israel Defense Forces recruiting office and was shocked to hear that she wasn’t required to enlist. Nonetheless, she volunteered in the army for three years. Bat-el dreamed of being a radio DJ and did everything from sleeping on the floor of Army Radio to ambushing the head of the broadcasting department until finally she landed an on-air job.  

After completing drama school, she acted in fringe theater. But during Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, all her shows were canceled. Bat-el called her mother, asking for money to pay the rent. Her mother said, “Honey, I am not going to fund your Tel Aviv life. You wanted to be an actress; you deal with this.”

“I saw supermodels on TV and thought,
‘Oh, I can do that.’ ” — Bat-el Borenstein

After wallowing in self-pity and tears, Bat-el picked up a pen and started writing her life story, carefully recording all the times she had been humiliated. “I was amazed by how funny it was,” she said. 

Four years later, her story has evolved into a one-tiny-woman show replete with song and dance. In 2017, she debuted an English-language version to critical acclaim at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland. But her triumph is tinged with a pang of guilt over her decision to leave out her army experience. “I was scared of BDS,” she admitted, referring to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and noting that an Israeli production had been shut down the year before after festival producers succumbed to protests calling for its boycott.  

At no other time had she ever been afraid to say she was an Israeli. “Yes, we have an army, and thank God for that,” she said, adding that while she loves performing overseas, “Israel is the core of my career. If anything, the [Edinburgh] experience made me more Zionist.” 

She draws a parallel between herself and her home country, but is quick to add, “Oh, it sounds so narcissistic, but I really relate to [Israel]. Israel is a tiny country and everyone looks at her and she’s like, ‘What do you want from me? I’m so tiny.’ But I’m still here. Flourishing.”

Her face splits into a thousand-watt grin. “Tiny and strong like me.”