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Global Shtetl: it’s a borscht velt after all


As YidLife Crisis, we’ve been travelling the world for some time now – whether it’s because people truly want to experience us in the fleish or it’s simply an ingenious community plot to get us out of town without physical resistance, we have been doing more exploration as Jews of late than Christopher Columbus (yes, we went there… and yes, he went here).

Wherever we go, whether it be Banff, where we find the Banff Fairmont selling “Montreal” bagels for $14 (this is the main difference between Fairmont and Fairmount, by the way), or a Tel Aviv bus station saturated with produce, pornography and Amharic graffiti, there is always some Jewish story to be told at the heart of it. Or if not the heart, at least the liver.

Recently we had the pleasure of visiting London’s East End and did something “radical” in visiting the origins of the first Jewish tailoring unions. While “radical” has different connotations today, radicalization meant taking on the “owning class” (i.e. Jewish tailors who struggled enough to move up to owners the generation prior).


Now, this represents a particular milestone unique to London’s Jewish history. But once you visit numerous Jewish communities, you start to notice trends (beyond say, Aromas popping up everywhere, shkoyach). For example, in some senses, Kensington Market bears some similarity to London’s East End (fun fact: we are about to embark on a shoot in Kensington Market for our Global Shtetl series shortly – you’re deeply welcome). Perhaps it’s not a coincidence, as Toronto brings much from the mother country, but Kensington Market was a place where immigrants moved and where, not surprisingly, labour ideals among the working class were championed in an era when Communism was popular and Bernie Sanders might not have been seen as the most left(over) candidate.

While the wave was different (late 19th-century Britain, roughly Depression-era Toronto), these elements and these “radical” uprisings (ironically ignored by the current class of self-declared “radicals” who often see Jews as nothing but privileged establishment types) were in fact quite similar. This begs the question, “Nu, why?” Well, one explanation is that these ideas really came out of eastern Europe, and no matter where we would settle in the Diaspora, those Jews from this original eastern European pocket would export them wholesale.

If a global shtetl exists de facto because of how we’ve had to emigrate and disperse, it’s reinforced by prominent figures traversing vast geographical spans. Radical speakers like Emma Goldman would indeed tour the world and lecture in London, Toronto, Montreal and beyond, presenting their ideas and building a groundswell, and so a certain virtuous circuit would be born of Jews continuing to develop like-minded thoughts across the world. And while we don’t deserve the analogy – though we’ll take it, because we slipped it past the editor – perhaps this comes full circle in our work, as we bring art to different cities on the global Jewish circuit. The Borscht Velt, if you will.


At the end of the day (which for us lunar Jews means the beginning), what makes Jews special are our shared characteristics that transcend geography. When we meet someone from Latin America, we realize their grandparents have the same Yiddish dialect as ours, because, in fact, they came from the same shtetl.

Johannesburg Jews have their own equivalent of the local shopping mall, Melbourne Jews have the same two rival shuls, and Jews in general have the same menu for Shabbes dinner, which we can always feel welcome to join. It’s like we Jews all have a global membership to WeWork, the international office space start-up where you can swing by to work whenever – except on Shabbes, it’s WeDon’tWork. In fact, you could say we’re a 6,000-year-old multinational start-up, with offices in every major city. (But we haven’t turned a prophet in years.) 

Chaimie and Leizer are Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, co-creators of the world’s first online Yiddish sitcom YidLife Crisis.

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