Irreverent Yiddish comedic web series back for season ‘tsvey’
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Irreverent Yiddish comedic web series back for season ‘tsvey’

Now with celeb cameos, Canadian creators Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion discover viewers of all backgrounds relate to their ‘YidLife Crisis’

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Chaimie (Jamie Elman) and Leizer (Eli Batalion) continue to ponder tensions between Jewish tradition and secular society in season 2 of 'YidLife Crisis.' (YouTube)
Chaimie (Jamie Elman) and Leizer (Eli Batalion) continue to ponder tensions between Jewish tradition and secular society in season 2 of 'YidLife Crisis.' (YouTube)

The “YidLife Crisis” continues. In its season two, now playing on YouTube, thirty-something Jewish buddies Chaimie and Leizer still love to argue in Seinfeldian fashion about matters of great import, like who sells Montreal’s best bagels and whether smoked meat should be served fatty or lean.

The series’ initial handful of Yiddish-language episodes racked up some 200,000 views in the last year, a sign that the mammeloshen is anything but dead on the web. Viewers of all ages and backgrounds (most of whom presumably make ample use of the English subtitles) have developed an affinity for the two young, cultural Jews, played by Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, who explore tensions between ancient religious traditions and contemporary secular life with edgy humor.

The series was named best comedy series at Toronto’s WebFest earlier this year, and Batalion and Elman (who write and direct the series in addition to playing the two main characters) have been interviewed extensively in the Canadian and Israeli media. Jewish celebrities have also taken notice of “YidLife Crisis,” and some expressed interest in making guest appearances.

Comedian and TV host Howie Mandel has already taped a clip in which he lets rip a litany of Yiddish insults, and veteran actor Ed Asner told The Times of Israel that he’d be pleased to dust off his “pidgin Yiddish” to appear in an episode.

“I love Yiddish and I would support any effort to keep this language, with its beauty and unique qualities, going,” Asner said.

In the new season’s opening episode, titled “Off the Top,” Chaimie and Leizer meet up in a suburban Montreal neighborhood after Rosh Hashanah services and head to the brit milah (ritual circumcision) ceremony for a friend who is converting to Judaism from Hinduism.

In typical fashion, the show tackles head-on not only the obvious topics of conversion and circumcision, but also those of religious chauvinism and Messianic Judaism. As usual, the slightly nebbishy Leizer approaches it all with total earnestness, while the Chaimie, with his boyish looks and charm, takes the irreverent, rebellious stance. It is he who puts the “high” in the High Holidays by smoking weed at the brit milah.

While the previous episodes ran approximately five minutes each, this new Rosh Hashanah installment is a full 15 minutes long. According to the creators, viewers can expect to see one or two more of these new longer-format episodes, as well as a handful of shorter ones, between now and next spring.

However, the web series is not all Elman and Batalion plan to offer fans. They will also soon release a five-part web-based travelogue series they filmed late last year when they were in Israel for Comedy for a Change, an international conference on the power of comedy to drive social change.

In these episodes, we will see Leizer and Chaimie — this time speaking mainly in English— at destinations such as Tel Aviv’s gay pride parade and the city’s central bus station on the lookout for manifestations of Yiddish culture in unexpected places.

‘What we envision is not just a self-contained website, but something more like a “YidLife Crisis” ecosystem’

“What we envision is not just a self-contained website, but something more like a ‘YidLife Crisis’ ecosystem,” Batalion recently explained to The Times of Israel. He said he and Elman are interested in dealing with a variety of “big banner topics,” including Judaism and sexuality, death and mourning, and religious and nationalist extremism in a variety of modalities.

In addition, since they take comedic license with some of the material in “YidLife Crisis” (for instance, an adult convert would not be circumcised in a living room, but rather in a medical setting), they think it would be fitting for them to begin supplementing the humorous episodes with educational material on the Jewish rituals, traditions and concepts presented.

Chaimie (Jamie Elman) and Leizer (Eli Batalion) congratulate their friend Samir (Abdul Butt) on his conversion to Judaism in 'YidLife Crisis.' (YouTube)
Chaimie (Jamie Elman) and Leizer (Eli Batalion) congratulate their friend Samir (Abdul Butt) on his conversion to Judaism in ‘YidLife Crisis.’ (YouTube)

While the pair have not yet been able to realize their entire vision on the Internet, they have already begun to provide the relevant contextual information in live “YidLife Crisis” shows they have staged to date in Los Angeles, New York and Montreal. These events have combined screenings of the web episodes with live comedic sketches and Q&A sessions.

“There’s stuff to unpack in each episode,” said Elman.

‘What began as a passion project has taken on an unexpected life’

What started out as a fun experiment for Batalion and Elman, who originally learned Yiddish as students at Montreal’s Bialik High School, has turned into a full-time undertaking.

“Insanely and against all logic, we’ve pursued this and basically arranged our lives around this,” said Batalion.

“We’re pretty much all-in with this now,” echoed Elman, who has put his Hollywood-based acting and music career on hold for the time being to stay in Montreal to work with his friend on “YidLife Crisis.”

“What began as a passion project has taken on an unexpected life. We realized we could go further with it. We haven’t said all we want to with regard to culture and Judaism,” he added.

Elman and Batalion are already expanding the “YidLife Crisis” narrative and further developing the Chaimie and Leizer characters by placing the pair’s Yiddish-based relationship against a broader backdrop. In the first season, it wasn’t all together clear why the characters were speaking exclusively Yiddish with one another. Perhaps they lived in some alternate universe where everyone speaks Yiddish, we wondered. Now, in “Off the Top,” we see Chaimie and Leizer speaking English with most of the people around them. It turns out that Yiddish is sort of a secret language they speak with one another.

Things take a weird turn when Leizer (Eli Batalion) meets Evelyn (Erika Rosenbaum) at a brit milah ceremony the "Off the Top" episode of 'YidLife Crisis.' (YouTube)
Things take a weird turn when Leizer (Eli Batalion) meets Evelyn (Erika Rosenbaum) at a brit milah ceremony the ‘Off the Top’ episode of ‘YidLife Crisis.’ (YouTube)

In fact, the notion of Yiddish as a secret code comes up as Leizer tells an enticing young woman he meets at the brit milah that he learned Yiddish by listening to his grandparents as they spoke Yiddish to one another so as to keep information from him. “Now they just insult me in English,” quips Leizer as he awkwardly chats up the potential love interest.

‘We’re running on pure chutzpah’

While having “YidLife Crisis” picked up by Amazon or Netflix, or seeing it made into an independent feature film, are goals they strive for, the creators said they are simply happy in the meantime to be working on a project that puts all their talents on display.

“We’re running on pure chutzpah,” said Batalion. Well, that and funding from Shaping Our Future Grants and the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal, Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel Alumni Venture Fund, ROI Micro-grants, and individual donors, including Montreal philanthropists Irwin and Sara Tauben.

Batalion and Elman’s subversive appropriation of Yiddish in grappling with Jewish tradition, as well as with attendant generational clashes, can be appreciated by young adults of all ethnicities whose have grown up in families with strong religious or cultural affiliations.

“We’re a Yiddish show, but we’re not just a Jewish show,” said Elman.

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