Mar 27, 2016
Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion are actors, writers, and high school friends from Montreal. As alter-egos Chaimie and Leizer, they star in the webseries Yidlife Crisis, which debuted in 2014. Scripted almost entirely in Yiddish, the show is in the tradition of shows-about-nothing built on male friendship and conversation across a table, but it is unique in its multilingual snark and overt address of Jewish anxiety. That is, anxiety about Jewishness—religion, tradition, language, and cultural practice—not just some tired brand of comic fear. Yidlife Crisis is both transgressive and familiar, and that’s what makes it so appealing. Recently, Jamie and Eli spoke with Diana Clarke of In geveb about Yiddishism, Montreal, and what it’s like to make art about your own life.
Why did this show feel necessary in Yiddish? What would it mean for Chaimie and Leizer to have the same conversations in English?
Eli: The show felt necessary in Yiddish because we specifically felt that the Yiddish language would give it the most humor. We wanted to be in the Yiddish comedy tradition, and we felt the truest form of Jewish comedy comes through in Yiddish specifically. That was a big factor. Another metaphorical factor is that Yiddish itself is mostly German. It’s a diasporic language almost by definition, and so it’s very multicultural. It mixes different languages together. And we could do stuff like that in English too, I guess, but Yiddish is more interesting. Yiddish is a Jewish language, and it draws on other languages because the whole project is so multilingual. What would it mean for Chaimie and Leizer to have the same conversations in English? That it would be 27% less funny, and 33% less poignant.
Jamie: I agree with all of that.
How do you approach working in Yiddish? Start in English and translate?
Jaime: Yes, we do start in English and translate. The process has evolved somewhat since we started, since unlike probably most other shows out there, we’re writing with an eye to the fact that 99.9% of our audience is going to be reading the script on screen. Something most screenwriters don’t have to think about, so we have subtitles in mind. We also write it with a sense of what it’s going to sound like in Yiddish, what sort of cadence we’re gonna go for in Yiddish—we’ll get to our backgrounds in a second—but Eli’s Yiddish in particular is good enough, and mine is so-so enough, that I can at least understand in theory how it’s going to scan when I say it onscreen. Scan meaning the performance, what we’re actually saying and how it’s going to line up with the subtitles on screen. So yes, we write in English and then we get into the translation.
What are your backgrounds with Yiddish?
Eli: My personal background involves my grandparents speaking it, growing up around them, my parents sort of speaking it, generally to hide things from my sister and myself—a sort of trend Jamie and I notice across the world, in terms of talking about Yiddish backgrounds. And I also went to JPPS which is associated with Bialik [High School], it’s an elementary school, and they taught some Yiddish, and Bialik high school taught Yiddish as well. So there’s both an in-the-home exposure to Yiddish, and I guess what you’d call a formal exposure to Yiddish education as well, although that was a long time ago. For Jamie, it’s a different story. Jamie did not have Yiddish in the home, and did not go to JPPS, which was the elementary school, so he did not have that formative experience. His Yiddish that does exist is from high school, from a very brief period in high school, so it’s a bit of a different experience.
Jamie: I would only amend what Eli said by saying that my father did use Yiddish in the home when he called me shmendrik, and that Yiddish was taught for five years at Bialik, and that Eli has taught me more about Yiddish than I ever learned at school. And he also calls me shmendrik.
Yidlife Crisis on a date with Mayim Bialik
Season 1 received some criticism for its Yiddish. How did that sit with you? What did you change for Season 2?
Jamie: Good question. I guess I’m speaking—I’ll be careful here. Most of our answers work for both of us, but I’ll give Eli the out that I’m only speaking for myself. It disappointed me—I’ll say me for this answer, okay? It disappointed me a lot that the Yiddishists criticized our Yiddish, because we felt that we had had done something that was new, fresh, exciting—hopefully for the renewal or revival Yiddish movement, although we were not working consciously with that aspect at the time. We did get some feedback, some of which was public and some of which was privately passed on to us, that there are people who really objected to the Yiddish so strongly that they then missed the entire point of our show. The fact is mostly we love Yiddish and respect it and the history of it. They felt that we treated it as a joke, and we don’t feel that way at all, and I resented it. They missed what the show is about: the crisis of identity, Judaism, the way the religion is interpreted in the modern world. Just seeing it as a language thing is ridiculous. We’re not academics, we don’t have upper-level degrees in Yiddish, and it was very annoying that we got that flak. Furthermore—yeah, I’m going to keep going on this one—furthermore, they missed the point of the Yiddish itself, which is that Yiddish, as far as we understand it, has always evolved, as all languages and cultures do, reflectively and reflexively over the millennium that Yiddish has been around. What a lot of the Yiddishists seem to miss is that we weren’t making as many mistakes as it seemed like we were making, although we admit that there were grammatical mistakes, vocabulary mistakes, syntax mistakes—but the fact is that the show is, especially in that first season, a tribute to our hometown of Montreal. And in Montreal people speak a very unique language, Montréalais, which we cite by name in our third episode, or they speak Frenglish, a mixture of French and English and everything else. And everybody who grows up here does that. They mix English and French and usually some third, other language. We call this Allophone, this other language usually being Yiddish, Polish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, and every other language spoken in about 120 countries on the island of Montreal. And so we’re trying to do a mishmash of Yiddish, to an extent, to reflect that Montréalais, and the absurd world we were creating. Two Montreal guys, secular atheist guys speaking in Yiddish, that is how we would speak it. That said, we did decide to go to one of the best for season 2: Rivka Augenfeld of the Jewish public library—an academic, a teacher, mameloshn-speaker who helped us up our game in Yiddish and make it bulletproof, we thought, for the academic world. But as we should have anticipated, yet other Yiddishists found ways of criticizing various parts of the Yiddish, thus proving our point which is that no two Yiddish speakers in the world can agree on how to pronounce any one thing, and we should stop being so sensitive about people criticizing our Yiddish. Amen! Okay, bottom line here for you, Diana: we respect Yiddish. We were not doing the show, and slaving over it as we have for two years, especially me who doesn’t actually speak it, because we don’t love Yiddish. Believe me, it would have been easier to do it in English. We did not do this as a way of mocking the Yiddish language. Okay!
Why did you decide to focus on Yiddish Montreal? What have you learned about Jewish Montreal culture in doing so?
Eli: Well you know, we’re based in Montreal. Montreal has a specific Yiddish legacy which probably has to do with the fact that Jews here—Ashkenazi Jews—didn’t integrate into society the way they might have in the US, or elsewhere in Canada, because the Catholic French Canadian world, and the church, placed limits on integration in society and in the school system. So I think—I mean, this is just my own theory, but I think—part of the reason Yiddish continues to have more of a stronghold per capita than elsewhere—Montreal is probably one of the top five cities in the world where Yiddish is concerned. Also the area where we did our stuff, Mile End, is the area where you have Hasidic Jews who speak Yiddish. And so Jamie and I were making a kind of statement, for those who are aware of the context, what it’s like to actually speak Yiddish in an area where Yiddish is actually spoken, by people who are, for lack of a better term, black-hats. And to be at a poutinerie, eating poutine, and here we are speaking Yiddish in a fully integrated capacity, so that was part of the fun—the absurdity, if you will, and also the message—of doing the show the way we did it.
Jamie: Well, yes. To be depicting Jewish Montreal culture, like Eli was saying—if we’re going to make a statement, one of the statements we wanted to make is that Judaism is multifaceted. It’s experienced by Jews all over the world in many, many, many different ways. We wanted to show that we are secular Jews who are still knowledgeable about Judaism, still love Judaism, honor it, and live it in our own ways, and we wanted the non-Jewish world as well to see that there are different kinds of Jews out there, and even Jews like us who could use Yiddish who are non-black hats, which Eli was just talking about.
Can you tell me about Montreal’s language politics? How does this show sit in that larger lexical context?
Jamie: Honestly, it’s an extremely complex situation, one that I wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking to. I can say that the language politics here are tenuous at best. There has been tension between the French and the English here for decades if not centuries, and we wanted to explore language in the context of Montreal. Yiddish was at one point the third-most-spoken language in Montreal, after English and French. So we thought there was something very interesting because there are some people who use language politically, aggressively—let’s call it on both sides—to separate themselves. People who don’t want to use French and Quebecers who don’t want to hear English. And then there are the ultra-Orthodox Jews who use another language, Yiddish, to separate themselves from the rest of the secular community at large. And of course we consider ourselves true Montrealers who think that we are all bastards, and a mishmash—which, by the way, is also a dish at Cosmos Restaurant on Sherbrooke Street West, a delicious one, or at Beauty’s on Mt. Royal. Anyway, we are a mishmash of cultures, and that’s why Montreal is great, if it is, and people do mix up languages here, and Yiddish is part of that cultural heritage and tapestry. I think that’s how this show sits in the larger lexical context.
What has the show’s reception been like? Among Jewish audiences? Yiddish-speaking audiences? Neither of the above?
Eli: Neither of the above? Generally speaking, very good—in fact, better than Jamie or I could have expected. Starting with Jewish audiences, it runs the gamut. One of the things about our Jewish audience is that it’s multi-generational. Jamie and I were writing about our own experiences, and we’re guys in our thirties, so if you’re another guy in your thirties you can relate to it on that level. But definitely, first of all, women respond to it more than men, probably, but you also have a lot of people in their sixties who are responding to it because of the nostalgia factor, and because the humor is based in a comedy that is old, very old-school, early twentieth-century comedy—twelfth century for that matter. The Jewish community has generally been very responsive, and we’re basically overwhelmed by the positive comments that come in, be they nostalgia, or when people see it on a deeper level—and they can engage on the Jewish identity, the professional identity. And they can get the little references to Seinfeld and the Talmud at the same time. People engage it on a bunch of different levels. The Yiddish community has been for the most part quite positive. As Jamie mentioned earlier, there have been some people who raised complaints about the language which was not up to a certain academic standard. Also, to Jamie’s point, that wasn’t really the point of what we were doing, but by having the help of Rivka making things significantly more academic and more vouched-for. But also to Jamie’s point it’s hilarious to us that no matter what you do there will be people who will just complain, because that’s what they do. As far as non-Jewish audiences, and non-Yiddish audiences, that’s what we find most interesting. We get comments from people saying they’re learning about Judaism by watching the show, that they have a spouse that’s Jewish but they’re not, and it’s really funny and hilarious and educational. So far we’ve only received very positive comments from that community. One instantiation of that is, we went to Krakow and we did our show for what was probably a 98% non-Jewish, Catholic audience. And Krakow in specific, they’re very Judeo-philic, they’re very interested in finding out about this Jewish history and Jewish comedy, they’re really eating it up as well. It’s really quite interesting. It seems to be hitting, for different reasons, quite different audiences.
You play a lot with transgression in the show. I’m thinking of the first episode of Season Two especially, with the pot-smoking on Rosh Hashanah, or your very first episode—eating poutine on Yom Kippur. How do transgression, religious knowledge, and Yiddish inform one another in your work?
Jamie: Well, we’re trying to depict different forms of Jewish expression and Jewish practice in the modern world. We’re doing a fairly classic routine here, where you have the more religious, traditional, conservative character with the more self-proclaimed hedonist, atheist, secularist, modernist—and I guess I also have this on my mind because I’m about to do a play here in Montreal called Bad Jews, and one of the characters in the play—actually the one I’m going to play—refers to himself as a “bad Jew.” What does that mean, “bad Jew?” I guess a bad Jew has the sense of transgression that you’re talking about: we don’t keep the mitzvot, we don’t perform many Jewish rituals, we are not by any stretch of the imagination religious or observant of the laws, and yet we are still very, very Jewish. So we wanted to explore the idea of what it means to be Jewish, as so many other, and in many cases wiser, people have done before us—in a few cases, funnier than us too, I’ll give it that. Larry David, maybe Jerry, and a few others. I’ll share one of the early compliments we got when we first released the show, which kind of emboldened us more: people said you’re saying controversial things, you’re out smoking on Rosh Hashanah, or eating on Yom Kippur, but the reason you guys can get away with it is because you clearly know, or seem to know, what you’re talking about. We are proud of our Jewish education, in one way or another. We both went to Jewish day schools for our entire lives leading up to university, we have been to Israel multiple times, we have been on the March of the Living, Eli is a Bronfman Youth Fellowship alum, I worked at Hillel. We know the Jewish community, we know Jewish tradition, we know a lot about what we’re talking about—not nearly as much as more Orthodox people, but we know enough to poke fun and criticize things that we find weird and archaic and still show through the Yiddish that we obviously love it, and this is our tribute to it. So I think that’s how transgression, knowledge, and Yiddish all come together. And one last thing, most people, probably many Jews and maybe many non-Jews who are aware of such things, would associate Yiddish specifically with the ultra-Orthodox community. But in fact we know, and you know, that many Yiddish speakers in the last couple hundred years used Yiddish as a more secular language, to keep loshn koydesh for prayer, for tfile, for study of Talmud separate. So we are once again tying Yiddish into this idea of secularism.
Eli: I just want to say Yiddish was very involved in the anarchistic?—anarchist movement. So it’s not just that Yiddish was used in the vulgar movement—not vulgar as in dirty, but vulgar as in vernacular—but it was also used by people who were actively anti-religion, who were part of that movement, and this is something a lot of people don’t know, and I think is sort of coming up in the show.
The two of you write and play friends very much like yourselves. What is it like to play and write for personas of your own invention? To create a friendship that is yours and not yours?
Eli: It’s really easy to write for ourselves. It’s the easiest writing job in the world because it’s based more or less on our lives, or at least on people and experiences that are very similar to ours, and so it comes very naturally, and it’s a lot easier than to, say, write for another gender in a whole other world. It’s very much us, so it’s quite simple, and it’s enjoyable too. Part of the joy of writing them is the fantasy of being able to take a likely situation and extrapolate it, see what might happen in this scenario or that scenario. So it’s kind of like our own therapy in that sense, we get to play that out.
What do you want people to take away from the show? Where do you want it to go? What is it for?
Jamie: The main thing I’ve ever wanted people to take away from the show—truly, truly, and I think I speak for Eli too—is to laugh. We are entertainers, we are comedians. As I said we are not academics or educators. However, we knew that by putting into the show this body of knowledge that we just carry in our minds and in our DNA, that we would possibly be educating some people, and we’ve been flattered to hear from various people—Jews and non-Jews—that they learn a lot about Judaism and Jewish culture from our show, as sad as some of your readers might actually find that. Where do you want it to go? What is it for? Well I guess on a deeper level—I’ll let Eli have the last word but I’ll just give one point on this—we went to this conference called Comedy for a Change in Jerusalem, and we sort of got acknowledged as part of this movement that we didn’t feel necessarily before we did it—maybe a little bit—we build bridges between communities. Maybe the English Jewish community, maybe the non-Jewish Quebecois community here in Montreal, that was a little on our minds, but after this trip which was about a year ago we embraced this idea that we could use comedy to have deeper conversations, to educate other communities about Judaism, hopefully to learn about other communities. And we’ve seen this over and over again as we screen our show and do our live show, that it does open up discussions that are interesting for people and for us, and we’d like to keep that discussion between cultures going, and you know, we’re peaceniks, shalom achshavniks. We don’t want religion, culture, or language to separate us but rather we want to celebrate it, and embrace each other. Do you want to add anything?
Eli: I want to embrace you now.
Jamie: Okay, Eli wants to embrace me now, so we’re going to call it a day.
Yidlife Crisis debuted its Global Shtetl travel series in early March. Watch parts one, two, and three of Jamie and Eli’s visit to Tel Aviv; parts four and five coming soon. Yidlife Crisis is incubated at Yiddishkayt in Los Angeles.