Arts & Culture

Spotlight On: Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman of “YidLife Crisis”

Talking trayf, Seinfeld, and circumcision with the creators of the new Yiddish web series. Read More

By / October 27, 2014

YidLife Crisis is a new web series that grapples with some of the great quandaries of contemporary Jewish life: Should Jews continue to practice archaic traditions? How do we define Jewish culture, which bears the influence of nationalities from around the globe? Also, how much badonkadonk is too much badonkadonk?

The series consists of four raucous, five-minute episodes written and performed by Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman, two Montreal-born actors who play Chaimie and Laizer, respectively. Each episode follows the two thirty-somethings as they grapple with their secular Jewish identity, revel in iconic Montreal restaurants, and extol the virtues of schmaltz (an absolute must, when it comes to smoked meat). This would be sufficiently wonderful on its own, but Batalion and Elman deliver something even better: the series is performed almost entirely in Yiddish.

Batalion and Elman studied Yiddish at Bialik High School in Montreal. Years after graduating, they connected in Los Angeles and began brainstorming ideas for a project that they could work on together. They knew they wanted to create a Yiddish web series, but not because they had lofty goals of preserving a “dying language.” As comic actors, Batalion and Elman were drawn to the vitality and rhythm of Yiddish, which has played an integral role in shaping humor and comedy in North America.

“I think a large part of what we’re doing here is a form of preservation of culture, but it’s not based on some sort of pure altruism,” Batalion explains. “It’s based on the fact that we just thought Yiddish was funny. Jamie and I are big fans of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and that kind of comedy is built on a Yiddish style that’s coming out in English, but it really owes royalties to the Yiddish language.”

Initially, they planned to recreate classic Seinfeld sketches in Yiddish, as a homage to the language that lends its flavor to their favorite sitcom. But they soon realized that they could do more than borrow material from an existing show. Batalion and Elman applied for and received a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, an organization that promotes Jewish culture in Montreal. Then, with some translation help from Batalion’s father, the duo started to write their own Yiddish scripts, which explored their concerns as young, secular Jews.

“The grant led us to realizations that we had about how the show could be deeper than just redoing Seinfeld sketches, “Elman says. “We could actually use the content of what we’re going to talk about in the show as a way of reaching out to other communities, and as a way of explaining our narishkeit, our Jewish neuroses, to the non-Jewish world.”

And what is it, exactly, that occupies the minds of the YidLife guys? Food, for one thing. (“It’s a Jewish show,” Elman says. “What else are we going to be doing?”) Each episode is set in a beloved Montreal eatery, as Chaimie and Laizer chow down on their favorite dishes and engage in Talmudic debates on matters of great Jewish import, like the optimal method for making bagels. They chat about beautiful women, naked selfies, and the merits of a big, um, posterior (the series is rated “Chai plus,” thanks to its racier content). It’s amusing to watch the guys work words like “badonkadonk” into Yiddish dialogue, but their lighthearted banter belies an earnest contemplation of modern Jewish life, with all its inconsistencies and hypocrisies.

In the first episode, Laizer is gorging on poutine—a very treyf Canadian specialty made with fries, cheese curds, and gravy—as Kol Nidre soars in the background. In another episode, Chaimie takes Laizer to task for eating at a Greek restaurant. “After what they did?” he cries. “200 BC? Forced conversion, temple desecration? I can’t eat this crap.” He does, in the end, after Laizer reminds him that most of his favorite “Jewish” foods—latkes, bagels, challah, Danish—were borrowed from other nationalities who, to put it lightly, had fraught relationships with the Jews. In the same episode, Laizer questions the value of continuing to practice ancient Jewish rites, like circumcision. “Is your mother Jewish?” he asks Chaimie. “Then by Jewish law, so are you. So why the schmekle chop?!”

“We’re dealing with everything with humor,” Batalion says of YidLife. “But some of the topics that are broached are fairly serious. I mean, atonement, circumcision are pretty serious acts. It’s not just that the act is serious, but the implications and the discussion about identity is a pretty serious discussion. In some way, Jamie and I grapple with it every single day.”

“I want to clarify,” Elman cuts in. “I don’t grapple with Eli’s circumcision in any way, shape, or form.”

Yiddish might seem like an anachronistic choice of language for a series rooted in a very twenty-first century medium, but it works. During the filming of YidLife’s first episode, Batalion and Elman performed their dialogue twice: once in English and once in Yiddish. The French-Canadian staff of the restaurant where they were shooting watched the English take with little reaction. But they started cracking up when Batalion and Elman performed the sketch in Yiddish.

“They were laughing the whole time we were doing the Yiddish, even though they couldn’t understand a word of it,” Elman says. “And in fact one of our camera guys—he’s a French-Canadian guy—was laughing during the take. I said, ‘Why is this so funny to you?’ He said, ‘Oh, it just sounds funny. It sounds like Seinfeld.’ And we knew right away that we were doing it right.”

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