August 25, 2019

Talking tachlis with ‘YidLife Crisis’

Two 30-something Jews sit in a restaurant, eating and bantering in sharp comedic bites. Their cadence is classically familiar, evoking influences from the Talmud to “Seinfeld” and the Borscht Belt; their arguments are essentially Jewish, centering on Jewish tradition, identity, hypocrisy and contemporary cultural meaning. Oh, and they’re speaking Yiddish. 

Meet “YidLife Crisis,” a Yiddish comedy Web series created and produced by Montreal writer-performers Eli Batalion, 34 (who still lives there), and Jamie Elman, 38 (who now lives in Silver Lake). 

“Yiddish was never meant to be spoken only by older people,” Elman said. “Yiddish was always meant to be the secular Jewish language — since we’re representing secular cultural Judaism, we’re making Yiddish part of that.” 

It is “YidLife Crisis’ ” humor and inflection that resonates with a generation raised on “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” even if they don’t speak Yiddish; an older demographic may not get the humor but delights in the Yiddish resurgence. But as a series, “YidLife Crisis” is less about the tactic and more about the tachlis — the real discussions that millennials are having about Jewish culture and tradition.

In its four webisodes, “YidLife Crisis” tackles topics such as circumcision and what the essential nature of “Jewish” is, and uses talmudic cadence to debate Montreal bagel supremacy — all conversations that continue to resonate with them as 30-something cultural Jews walking in the secular world. 

Some of those conversations came to light at “El Yid” at El Cid, a “YidLife Crisis”-headlined performance at Silver Lake’s El Cid restaurant, produced with two L.A. nonprofits, East Side Jews and Yiddishkayt. Other performers riffed on contemporary Jewish life and identity — host and comedian Jessie Kahnweiler welcomed everyone to what she called “Circumcision: The Musical” and rapper Kosha Dillz presented his rhyming anthem “Everything Is Kosher.” Later, Mendy Pellin — a Chasidic comedian and creator of YouTube channel Jewbellish — proclaimed that he only believes in “same-sects marriage” before taking the stage to rap the song “Talk Yiddish to Me.” (At that point, a woman seated toward the back of the room turned to other audience members and said in disbelief, “What is happening?!”)

Over the last five to 10 years, Elman said, each Passover after spending time with their families for the seder, he and his Montreal friends “meet up late night to hang out.” Questions about the future inevitably come up: “Most of our parents are still alive, but what about when it’s up to us? What are we going to do? Will we marry Jews? What do our parents want, and what do we want? What is the essence of a Jewish life? We can’t help but talk about these things after the seder. The conversations get intense, but one of the things we love most about Judaism is the encouragement to ask questions.”

One episode in particular has raised questions from some audience members. Episode 2 finds Chaimie and Leizer (the “YidLife” alter-egos of Elman and Batalion, respectively) in a deli, where an initial debate about a lean corned-beef sandwich becomes a discussion about women’s bodies and introduces the soon-to-be-indispensible Yiddish neologism “nakkideh zelfie” (“naked selfie”). In a simultaneous nod to and subversion of the famous deli scene from “When Harry Met Sally,” let’s just say that Leizer decidedly will not have what Chaimie’s having.

“This was about mirroring in a non-religious context the hypocrisy that we point out in the other episodes,” Elman said, pointing to the first episode’s story’s dueling absurdities: Leizer eats on Yom Kippur but won’t mix meat and milk, while Chaimie would never eat an improperly assembled poutine. “The content is racy and pushes the envelope,” Batalion admitted. “Some may interpret it as offensive, but it is meant as an homage to the zaftig body, which has often been rejected by modern middle- and upper-class society.”  

At El Cid, in an all-in-good-fun premeditated bit, Kahnweiler happily balanced the scales by objectifying the pair. She said Elman reminded her of  “a day-old Canter’s Danish that begs you to take it home, and so you buy it and eat it quickly in shame and it’s unfulfilling,” and Batalion more resembled “the last little piece of gefilte fish left in the jar. You’re not really sure what it’s made of, but your mom makes you eat it anyway, and it gives you indigestion.”

What’s next for Chaimie and Leizer? “People want to see Jamie enjoy himself and see Eli in pain,” the pair agreed. The duo had originally produced the Web series with funding from the Montreal Jewish Community Foundation and has started searching for new investors, grants and content partners to help them perpetuate “YidLife Crisis.” They also tour cities and festivals with their unusual approach to comedy and conversations. 

When their tour took them to Israel in December for the Comedy for a Change conference, they weren’t sure whether their Diaspora-based webseries would resonate. “Do Israelis also question their Jewish identity? Do they relate to the paradoxes — and hypocrisies — of religious practice and faith?” Once there, they learned that Israelis do, in fact, share this struggle. “Jewish identity is, indeed, complex in the modern world, both in the Diaspora and in Israel.”  

Yiddish purists have criticized Elman and Batalion for not speaking the language properly, but the two admit their approach to the pidgin language is nonacademic. “It’s like putting on your dad’s jacket,” Batalion said. “It allows us to pay tribute and be like our elders, but doesn’t fit exactly the same way.” While Batalion was Yiddish valedictorian at Montreal’s Bialik High School, Elman acknowledges that he is “YidLife’s” “worst Yiddish speaker.” 

“We did it on purpose; we’re not speaking the Yiddish from Second Avenue during the 1920s, or from Tevye the dairyman. Many Jews don’t know exactly what Yiddish is, where it came from and how our version differs from the original.” 

“We meant it to be absurd,” Batalion said. “Imagine the world exactly like it is, except everyone speaks Yiddish and no one explains why. That, to us, was the joke.”