If “Seinfeld” had taken place in Montreal instead of New York and been in Yiddish instead of English, it would have been “YidLife Crisis,” a new comedy web series premiering on September 16.
The series of five-minute videos promising “Sex, drugs, milk and meat. All in Yiddish,” are the brainchild of Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman, a couple of young Jewish native Montrealers who learned Yiddish as students at the Bialik High School.
The project started out simply as a way for the two friends to work together, but it has ended up meaning much more to them.
“We are prouder of it than we thought we’d be. We got to be authentic and say things we really wanted to,” says Elman, a film and television actor and musician living in Los Angeles (and who happens to have had a guest spot on “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”).
Elman, 38, and Batalion, 34, both consider “YidLife Crisis” a portrait of their own form of secular 21st century Judaism. They are also interested in preserving, and even reinvigorating, a sense of Yiddish culture and Yiddish humor that has receded in to the past, as Yiddish has become almost exclusively the language of the Hasidic community.
“Of course Chaimie [Elman’s character] and Leizer [Batalion’s] are an absurdist thing,” says Elman. “No secular Jew today sits around conversing in Yiddish.”
“Yiddish was always meant to be a secular language, so we are re-appropriating it from the fanaticism and extremism that has been attached to it and we’re returning it to its origin,” he says.
“We are reclaiming Yiddish for secular, multicultural, democratic people,” says Batalion.
‘We are reclaiming Yiddish for secular, multicultural, democratic people’
The hilarious conversations between Chaimie and Leizer are what one would expect a couple of young, Jewish single guys to schmooze about. They talk mainly about women, sex, their hometown, and something they both clearly love: food.
However, woven in to the guy-talk dialogue are well-informed references to and disagreements about issues relating to Jewish identity today. This serious aspect grounds the comedy and consequently allows the series to soar far beyond what it initially appears to be.
For instance, in the first of the four episodes, Chaimie taunts Leizer, who is fasting for Yom Kippur, by eating a delicious plate of poutine (a French Canadian specialty composed of French fries, cheese curds and gravy) right in front of him.
All joking aside (and there is a lot of joking), the friends’ discussion of matters of belief and ritual observance (and the deliberate lack thereof) are highly instructive about the kinds of things young, consciously non-religious or deliberately unaffiliated Jews grapple with today.
In the end, Leizer can no longer withstand abstaining from the poutine, but he insists the waitress bring him the meat-based gravy on the side.
The atheist Chaimie ironically accuses Leizer, who had been trying to observe the Day of Atonement, of sacrilege. They are at La Banquise, a mecca for poutine, and Leizer has the chutzpah to order the dish deconstructed to meet kosher-style requirements.
“You disgust me as a Jew, and you disgust me as a Montrealer,” declares an exasperated Chaimie, who has lost his appetite.
It’s at once funny and profound, and it all sounds better in Yiddish than it ever could in English.
“When you’re doing comedy, Yiddish just sounds better,” says Elman. “Jewish comedy stems from a Yiddish sensibility.”
Batalion, who lives in Montreal and works in content marketing as well as the entertainment business, agrees. Having grown up with grandparents and parents who spoke Yiddish, and having given the valedictory address in Yiddish at his Bialik graduation, he has an even better grasp of the language than does Elman.
However, since neither of them have kept up the mammeloshen fluency necessary for creating a script, they ended up writing “YidLife Crisis” in English and seeking assistance in translating it.
“The main translator was my father, and we also had some help from a local professor, and a disenfranchised Hasid in his teens,” says Batalion.
‘When you’re doing comedy, Yiddish just sounds better’
Some of the Yiddish expressions are translated literally in the series’ English subtitles, but many are not. It is evident that, whether in Yiddish or English translation, the sometimes raunchy language coming out of the mouths of the characters’ in “YidLife Crisis” is not your Zayde’s Yiddish. There’s a good reason the series is rated “Chai,” for viewing only by those 18 and older.
“YidLife Crisis” is as much a love letter to Montreal and its food as it is to Yiddish and secular Judaism. After all, how could a couple of Jewish buddies get together without eating?
The first episode features poutine, but that is just the beginning. Each of the other episodes has Chaimie and Leizer not merely noshing, but mamish fressing other local delicacies, including Montreal smoked meat and Montreal bagels. Their argument as to whether the Fairmount Bagel or St-Viateur Bagels has the best roll-with-the-hole in Quebec’s largest city is fierce.
The creators are hopeful that people of all different backgrounds and culinary preferences will enjoy the web series.
“We think non-Jews will understand that although we are telling things though a Jewish lens, our themes are universal. Jews are not the only young adults who don’t think the things they were taught as children are true,” says Elman.
“And there is also a subtext that will likely be picked up by French Canadian ears,” adds Batalion. “This series flips for Quebecers the idea of what a Jew can be. Quebecers generally associate Yiddish with people with long beards wearing black.”
Batalion also thinks that French Canadians who have fought for their own language rights within Canada, could sympathize what he and Elman are trying to do with Yiddish.
Viewers can begin watching Elman and Batalion earnestly kibitzing around on September 16, when the series’ website goes live. One new episode will be released in each of the months between this Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah.