It was a bit of a lark when Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, then 38 and 34, respectively, decided to finally put the Yiddish they learned during their time at Bialik High School in Montreal to use.
Launched five years ago, their irreverent and clever web series, YidLife Crisis, stars the duo as mismatched friends Chaimie and Leizer, who converse solely in the mama loshen. In diners and delis around Montreal, they hash over their opposing views on Jewish identity.
Elman and Batalion like to call it the first and only R-rated (or “chai-plus”) online Yiddish comedy series.
When they started working on YidLife Crisis, Elman had been living in Los Angeles for years and had an established acting career, mostly in television. Batalion, who was dividing his time between Montreal and Toronto, had some success at the Montreal Fringe Festival with a musical called Job: The Hip-Hop Musical and was working on the music for a horror movie.
The initial series, which was funded by Federation CJA, consisted of four episodes of five or six minutes, subtitled in English. To the co-creators’ astonishment, it proved a huge hit with people around the world.
Two more series followed and YidLife Crisis has had a total of over three million views.
Elman and Batalion reflected on their unexpected midlife career turn at the long-awaited Montreal premiere of their first feature-length film, Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal.
The zany duo decided to return to their hometown after filming the spinoff YidLive sketches in various other places where food is a cultural touchstone.
The hour-long Chewdaism stars the pair, this time speaking English with only a sprinkling of Yiddish, eating their way through a half-dozen meals over the course of a day. The restaurants and dishes were chosen to reflect the diversity of Jewish food and of the community in Montreal.
From lox and cream cheese bagels at the historic Fairmount Bakery, to Sephardic couscous at a house party, to the modern stylings of young Jewish restaurateurs, Elman and Batalion suffer biliousness for their art.
Chewdaism has been screened at more than 20 Jewish film festivals throughout North America, as well as in Bucharest. On the day it was shown at the Rialto Theatre in Montreal on May 5 before a standing room-only audience, it was also being screened in Boston and Beverly Hills, Elman said.
Chewdaism traces the history of the Montreal Jewish community over 100 years, through the protagonists’ peregrinations from one eating stop to the next.
There is also a serious message amid the humour. Zev Moses, founder and executive director of the Museum of Jewish Montreal, their tour guide along St-Laurent Boulevard, provides a vivid account of the hardships of Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century: poverty, miserable working conditions and blatant anti-Semitism.
After they leave the Plateau and Mile End and head to Outremont, borough Coun. Mindy Pollak, who is Hasidic, describes ongoing efforts to ease the cultural clashes with non-Jewish neighbours.
Over in Côte-St-Luc, where Elman and Batalion grew up, the Sephardic partygoers speak frankly about the discrimination their immigrant parents experienced from Ashkenazim.
The filmmakers also benefited from the input of scholars Pierre Anctil, Chantal Ringuet, Steven Lapidus and Jessica Roda.
The film’s value as a promotional vehicle for the city has been recognized, as Tourisme Montréal will use excerpts from it to lure people here.
Fittingly, the Montreal premiere included “geshmak” food from the Snowdon Deli, as well as the babka from the Cheskies Heimishe Bakery, which the guys rhapsodize over in the film.
The Rialto on Park Avenue, which opened in 1924, was chosen for the premiere, because it is at the confluence of “Hasidism and hipsterism,” said Batalion.
Pollak commented that she “had a ball” working with the duo and thinks comedy is a good way for Jews to reach other people. “Jews have used humour for 6,000 years and I think it is important to continue this tradition,” she said.
The evening concluded with Batalion on electric guitar and Elman singing a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah with their own lyrics (“You heard their was a foodie show, premiering at the Rialto”).
The duo hopes Chewdaism will be aired on Canadian television soon. The trailer and all of YidLife Crisis’ back catalogue are available on its website.
“Let’s address the Eliyahu in the room. These are dark days for Jews around the world,” said Elman. “But don’t hide, let’s put ourselves out there and show we are not a monolithic people. It’s OK to have differences. We can bond over what we have in common: comedy, music and food.”