‘Chewdaism’ Explores Montreal’s Jewish Culture

April 24, 2019
Jamie Elman (left) and Eli Batalion

With bagels, babkas, knishes, smoked meats and Moroccan couscous on the menu, with a shmeer of Jewish history and culture on the side, “Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal” celebrates the Canadian city’s Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities and delicacies. 

In the documentary, which can be seen at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman, known for their Yiddish-language web series, “YidLife Crisis,” spend a day noshing and fressing through their hometown’s Jewish neighborhoods. 

“The Jewish community made a large contribution to the development of Montreal and also to its food culture,” Batalion told the Journal. “There’s something special going on in this city from a multicultural and multiethnic standpoint, and we wanted to celebrate that and put it on display for the world.” 

Elman added, “The story of the Jews in Montreal, while unique, definitely parallels other Jewish major centers in terms of immigration, escaping poverty and terror in Europe. The community contributed to North American society in ways that left an indelible impact.”

Batalion and Elman’s food tour includes stops at Fairmount, Montreal’s oldest bagel bakery, Wilensky’s for its grilled bologna and salami sandwich, Schwartz’s for deli, and Cheskie’s, a Chasidic-owned bakery, for chocolate babka. “I’m on a hard-core babka kick right now,” Elman said. 

The duo also joins Moroccan and Iraqi Jews for a lively Sephardic dinner party. And, amazingly, they find room for knishes afterward. “I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from that day,” Batalion said. But Elman was ready for more. “Sure, I was full,” he said. “But a couple of hours later I was like, ‘Let’s go for more bagels.’ ”

The longtime friends met as students at Montreal’s Bialik High School, where they learned Yiddish in addition to their other classes. They individually pursued careers in acting and writing, “Much to our parents’ chagrin,” said Batalion, also a composer and lyricist for films. They reunited to create “YidLife Crisis” five years ago. 

Why revive the language of their bubbes and zaydes? 

“The interest comes from trying to understand our heritage, to understand where we come from as Ashkenazic Jews,” Batalion said. “Montreal has a large Yiddish heritage and a large population of Holocaust survivors. We have the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, the Jewish Public Library and the Foundation for Yiddish Culture. It’s one of the Yiddish capitals of the world. We wanted to renew an interest in it.”

With three million views and counting, they’re working on new episodes for Season Three of “YidLife Crisis” and they’ve expanded the brand to include a live show, “YidLive.” “We want to bring it to as many places as possible,” Elman said. “We’re talking about bringing it to L.A. in the fall.”

Elman moved to Los Angeles almost 20 years ago to pursue acting opportunities. His credits include “House,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Mad Men.” But he also has taught Hebrew at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, Hebrew and bar mitzvah prep at Nachshon Minyan in Encino and hosted events for Jewish organizations. Inclusion in the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival is “very exciting,” Elman said. “It’s a pleasure to be shown in the entertainment capital of the world, my adopted hometown.”

Batalion continues to be based in Montreal. How does the long-distance partnership work? “Badly. Stressfully. Annoyingly,” Elman said. “But we make it work because we enjoy working together and we enjoy the projects.”

Everything they do is likely to reflect their Jewish identity. “It’s inevitable in our projects, from our web series to our documentaries,” Batalion said. “I’m not sure it necessarily translates into religious observance, but it’s very much a part of who we are.”

“Chewdaism” will continue to play at film festivals, and the filmmakers have partnered with the tourist board Tourisme Montréal, which will use it to lure visitors to the city. They’re hoping for a TV release, possibly on PBS, down the line.

As for other plans, at least one idea involves food. Elman would like to bring a taste of Jewish Montreal to L.A. “Montrealers are very proud of their food and they love exporting it,” Elman said. “There was a place on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills called St. Urbain Bagels, which is the name of a street in Montreal. It closed down, and I could tell you why. Dreck! If we can find a backer, Eli and I would like to open a Montreal bagel shop in L.A.”

Batalion also has a soft spot for gefilte fish, “which is universally despised. The bar is so low that once you have decent gefilte fish, it’s quite nice,” he said.
Elman’s favorite? “You can’t go wrong
with a good potato kugel,” he said. “My mother could get me to clean the whole house for it.”

“Chewdaism” screens at 2:30 p.m. May 5 at Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., preceded by the short “Egg Cream.” Egg creams and bagels will be served.

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