November 13, 2019

‘YidLife Crisis’ Tackles Anti-Semitism

Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion; Photo from Jamie Elman

Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion were almost through the third season of their Yiddish-language YouTube comedy series, “YidLife Crisis,” when they decided to start over. While previous episodes had titles like “Sukkannabis,” a pitch by Elman’s character, Chaimie, for Sukkot to become “the highest of holidays,” and “(((Jewish))) General Hospital,” in which Chaimie feels the burn of an STD, the daily news of anti-Semitic acts around the world demanded special attention. The new video, called “An Anticementish Episode,” focuses on the swell of stories about anti-Semitic incidents and whether they have been amplified by social media or are a real and rising threat.

“Jewish social media is a nonstop barrage of hate and terrible things,” Elman told the Journal. “Between [crowds shouting] ‘Jews will not replace us,’ [President Donald] Trump and antifa, [graffitied] swastikas are on the rise in the States and in Canada. The whole thing is farkakteh, out of control. We couldn’t stay out of the conversation.”

As Elman and Batalion explored ideas for the new episode, they were struck by people’s responses to anti-Semitic graffiti, including the Facebook video of a young woman in Bucharest who transformed a graffiti swastika into a flower with a message reading “No hate, please.” And in Berlin, Paintback, a group of young street artists, have been converting swastikas to images featuring cute animals.

The video will launch on Sept. 19. After an opening riff with the regular mix of “YidLife” topics — racism, food and weed — the duo talk about whether anti-Semitism is on the rise and how best to handle graffiti: Do you erase or cover over it with something else or do you leave it up as a memorial, so that no one forgets that hate exists in the world? 

“Jews are being torn apart, from the right and the left, and have never been more divided,” Elman said. “The division has gotten so extreme that we felt we had to comment. As comedians, we thought there’d be value in what we do — having sensitive and difficult conversations introduced through the cogent course of comedy.” 

“Jews are being torn apart, from the right and the left. The division has gotten so extreme that we felt we had to comment. As comedians, we thought there’d be value in what we do.” — Jamie Elman

Batalion and Elman grew up in Côte-Saint-Luc, a Montreal suburb that is nearly 40% Jewish, according to Wikipedia. Elman said that part of “YidLife’s” DNA is Montreal and its diversity. 

“It’s a multicultural, multilingual, amazing place, with every color of the rainbow and yet anti-Semitism is on the rise even here,” Elman said. “It never really occurred to me that this could happen here today, but it is happening.”

“The social feed can amplify the reality. It’s hard when there’s something else every day,” Batalion said. “I’d feel uncomfortable wearing a kippah or looking religious [while] walking around. That’s ridiculous. In Western society, we should feel comfortable, but [today] it’s taking a risk.”

The new video tackles the question of perception and reality surrounding today’s anti-Semitic incidents, Batalion said. “Is it a new level of frequency or is social media creating a more exaggerated impression? A bit of the dialogue of our two characters is, ‘It is happening’ and ‘No, it’s not.’” 

The global “YidLife Crisis” audience ranges from teens to nonagenarians, Yiddish speakers and non-Yiddish speakers, Jews and non-Jews, with political leanings from both ends of the spectrum, Elman said. 

“If there’s anything we can do to be part of the conversation by using comedy in some way, we might be able to get people to think differently about the topic,” Batalion said. “We are trying to present both sides, to show that there are good arguments for saying it’s a clear and present threat and to saying that sometimes it is exaggerated. We’re not coming from a biased, advocacy place. We’re trying to show a comedian’s perspective on this issue, allow people to have less one-sided views.”

He added that they also are planning to develop curricula around the video. 

At the video’s end, there is a clip of Batalion and Elman in two different YouTube frames: one positioning the clip as an argument for the extreme right and the other using the same clip in an extreme-left context. 

“People will see what they want to see, see their own sides [reflected in the video],” Batalion said. “Are there rational people in the middle? We’ll see.” 

While producing the video, Batalion and Elman received word that The Peace Network, an organization in Montreal, had selected them as 2019 Peace Ambassadors. In this role, they have been promoting the many Peace Day initiatives throughout the city in the lead-up to International Peace Day on Sept. 21.

“People appreciated what we were trying to do,” Elman said, noting that someone at the organization had seen the duo’s short film, “Chewdaism,” at a screening for 750 people at an old theater in Montreal. “The episode was done before we got asked [to be ambassadors] but it feels like good timing and fortuitous.”

Another star of this video is the Montreal cheese bagel, a knish-like dough in a horseshoe shape which, in its classic form, boasts a blintz-like, sweet cheese filling. Elman and Batalion grew up eating cheese bagels at the mall, and Elman sees them as an apt analogy for the state of current events.

“It’s a two-sided horseshoe and we find that anti-Semitism comes from both ends of the cheese bagel,” he said. “It’s about the current climate of extremes. And also, we wanted to make you hungry.” 

“YidLife Crisis” will present “YidLive!” on Oct. 26 at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills. For more information visit their website.