MONTREAL — The opening screen gives fair warning: Adult situations and coarse language.
Viewers do not expect to then be informed that the rating is “chai” – 18 and over – and the video will be all in Yiddish.
YidLife Crisis is the hilarious, irreverent and naughty new web series created by and starring Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, 30-something actors who are finally putting to use the mamaloshen they (half-heartedly) learned at Montreal’s Bialik High School.
The first of YidLife’s four episodes, “Breaking the Fast,” is now available in time for the High Holidays on their website yidlifecrisis.com. The next three will be released each month, with the final one coinciding with Chanukah. They average five to six minutes.
All the dialogue is subtitled in English. There are plenty of f-words – farkakte, for one – not easily translated.
Batalion, 34, plays the more cerebral, somewhat uptight Leizer, while Elman, 38, is the laidback Chaimie, who likes to provoke his friend by dismissing Jewish beliefs and customs as irrelevant nonsense.
The episodes are set in and around popular eateries in Montreal’s Mile End district. “Breaking the Fast” takes place after Yom Kippur at an iconic poutinerie, La Banquise. Leizer is shocked to come upon Chaimie gluttonously putting away a dish of fries, cheese and gravy.
Chaimie urges Leizer to lighten up and order a poutine as well.
So begins a debate on why Jews should fast, the nature of sin, and the very existence of God. Leizer accuses Chaimie of “self-hatred bordering on anti-Semitism.”
It’s comedy, a bit bawdy, but there’s a serious undertone.
Leizer eventually succumbs and orders a plate from an incredulous scantily clad Québécoise waitress (Léane Labrèche-Dor), but insists the meat-based gravy be separate – as a concession to Judaism, or at least his conscience.
Their Yiddish seems natural, even colloquial. But Chaimie and Leizer are modern-day Jews. They take photos of their food with their phones.
The second episode, “The Schmaltz,” will see the two at Lester’s Deli. The pair’s friendship is almost ruptured when Leizer orders a lean smoked meat sandwich, instead of the sacrosanct fat-streaked version.
The St. Viateur and Fairmount bagel bakeries are the destinations in episode three, “The Great Debate,” which devolves into one of talmudic pilpulism, inspired by the neighbourhood’s Chassidim.
And apropos the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucids, Leizer and Chaimie dine out at Arahova Souvlaki in the last episode, “Bastards.” Leizer refuses to eat Greek food because of what the Greeks did to the Jews two millennia ago. That’s nonsense to Chaimie, who tucks into his pita, and further goads his pal by proposing that Hellenistic culture wasn’t so bad, and that much that is regarded as Jewish is derived from other peoples.
YidLife was supported with grants from the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal and the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, under programs that encourage innovative projects to connect younger Jews to the community.
Elman, who lives in Los Angeles, is an actor, most frequently in television (Student Bodies, Curb Your Enthusiasm), has a degree in English from McGill University, and teaches Hebrew at a Jewish Sunday school. He had not used Yiddish since graduating from Bialik in 1993.
Batalion, who was the Yiddish valedictorian for his ’97 class, likewise has used the language little over the years. Today, the actor/composer divides his time between Montreal and Toronto. He has a Montreal Fringe Festival show with Jerome Sable, Job: The Hip-Hop Musical, and his feature-length horror musical comedy movie Stage Fright came out this spring.
They call YidLifeCrisis their “love letter to Yiddish language, culture and comedy.”
“A lot of great North American comedy, like that of Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David, is deeply influenced by Yiddish expression, cadence and logic – or lack thereof,” said Batalion, so why not deliver that humour in its natural language.
“In school, all they ever read in Yiddish were 19th-century or early 20th-century shtetl stories, never anything modern or risqué, for sure,” said Elman, yet popular Yiddish comedy has a “blue” history.
“We were trying to imagine what conversational Yiddish would be like today – for secular Jews – if it had not been wiped out by the Holocaust,” he said.
Batalion said that their fictional characters’ adversarial to-and-fro reflects in an exaggerated way the conversations the two of them have – as do many Jews of their generation.
“We love being Jews, but there are so many aspects that are frustrating,” he said.
Adds Elman: “We both came from traditional homes, went to Jewish schools and camps, on the March of the Living, to Israel, then you enter the real world and start to question everything you were taught.
“But as much as we rebel, we are still, to the core, very, very Jewish.”
They wrote the script’s first draft in English and then had some Yiddish experts, including Batalion’s father, help with the Yiddish translation.
The two plan to release a French-subtitled version of the series and website this fall. Labrèche-Dor, a well-known Quebec TV actor, is helping with that.
Elman and Batalion believe the series, which can be viewed by anyone with Internet access, can contribute to intercultural understanding in Quebec and elsewhere, and that the theme of a crisis of faith and identity are universal.
Batalion and Elman hope to get that Jewish discussion going online also at facebook.com/YidLifeCrisis and on Twitter @YidLifeCrisis.