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YidLife duo explore Krakow’s fascination with Jewish culture

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Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion check out folkloric Jewish magnets in a Krakow market.

The Krakow JCC Yiddish Club members look serious as two Jewish comedians from Canada try to teach them the Yiddish word for “foolishness.”

The visitors didn’t realize that their grasp of the language was easily matched by their pupils – nearly all of whom were not Jewish.

This is a scene from Narishkayt: YidLife Crisis in Krakow, a humorous documentary co-produced by Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman about their trip to the Polish city a couple of years ago. The film was directed by Paulina Fiejdasz, who is not Jewish.

Batalion and Elman, both Montreal natives, are the creators and stars of the irreverent Yiddish comedy web series, YidLife Crisis, which was launched in 2014. Foolishness is what they do, they say, but they hope to convey a deeper meaning through it.

The duo are astonished by the interest in all things Jewish among non-Jews, or those who have discovered a Jewish connection in their ancestry, in Krakow.

Learning Yiddish is certainly not narishkayt (foolish) for the people they met. For example, Batalion and Elman, despite their schooling in Yiddish and family backgrounds, had to ask a young woman in the class to translate a Forward article, because they cannot read the language as well as she can.

WATCH: AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMIE & ELI FROM YIDLIFE CRISIS

The film’s world premiere was simulcast in Montreal by Federation CJA and at the Krakow JCC on June 27, during Krakow’s 28th Jewish Culture Festival. As Batalion observed, the weeklong event is the largest of its kind in the world.

Batalion thinks his grandparents, all of whom came from Poland, would find it “ironic but pleasurable” to see the devotion that non-Jews in Poland have for reclaiming and honouring what they see as part of their heritage – the 1,000-year history of Jews in the country.

“Poland is one of the biggest allies of the Jewish people in the world today,” Batalion declared after the screening.

This was Elman’s first trip to Poland since he went on the March of the Living as a high school student a quarter-century earlier.

The contrast couldn’t be starker, he said. That Poland was presented as a dark and depressing place for Jews, which so different from “colourful” Krakow he sees today.

The live feed allowed for interactions between the two audiences before and after the screening, with each waving to the other and a translator alternating between Polish and English.

Poland is one of the biggest allies of the Jewish people in the world today.
– Eli Batalion

Krakow JCC executive director Jonathan Ornstein, a New York native, explained that it is difficult to determine how many Jews live in the city because figuring out “who is a Jew” is especially complicated in Poland.

He gave the example of one man who discovered that his mother was Jewish and avidly adopted his new identity, while his brother, a practising Christian, was not interested. Orenstein spoke against a banner that read, “Building a Jewish Future in Krakow.”

Other than Ornstein, the JCC staff is largely non-Jewish.

The enthusiasm for Jewish history and culture blossomed after the fall of communism, which had suppressed nationalist expression since the war, the director of the Galicia Museum said.

Narishkayt follows Batalion and Elman as they try to explain Jewish humour to the class and focuses on them coming to terms with the conflict between their traditional Jewish and modern secular identities, even as they approach middle age.

They tell the class that humour has historically been “a massive defence mechanism” for Jews against persecution and discrimination. Diaspora Jews learned to make fun of themselves and the Yiddish language was the perfect vehicle.

An Orthodox rabbi they meet in the film agrees to watch the YidLife Crisis episode, “Sex, Drugs, Milk and Meat” – proof, the duo say, of a tolerance for self-questioning in Jewish tradition, even among the most pious.

Poles seem to already understand the importance of Jewish humour. On a visit to a Jewish bookshop, the two find a book of Jewish jokes alongside texts on Jewish religion and philosophy.

Fiejdasz said she has been interested in Jewish culture since childhood and this film and her earlier work were made to further build bridges and promote dialogue between the communities.

Narishkayt was made largely with a Polish audience in mind and the comedians hope their “kitsch” will contribute a little to strengthening Polish-Jewish rapprochement, especially at a time when that is being tested.

The film received funding from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Bronfman Fellowship and the Barbara Stevens and Michael Kurtzig Family Fund.