There they are, on Yom Kippur, the holiest of the holy days on the Jewish calendar, at a poutine restaurant in Montreal. There’s Chaimie, dismissing the ritual of fasting while noshing on his cheese- and gravy-covered fries, and Leizer haranguing him from across the table about mixing milk and meat. After a Talmudic-style debate in Yiddish, Chaimie convinces Leizer that breaking his fast won’t hurt his chances with God. Leizer relents, but not before Chaimie excoriates him. “You disgust me as a Montrealer, and as a Jew,” he says. The chutzpah — when you’re hungry, you’re hungry.
If the setting of this episode feels a bit Seinfeldian, it’s not by accident. The sketches were co-created and are co-written by co-stars Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, longtime friends whose idea for the show was based on their adoration for Seinfeld and its wry observational humor. (One of their heroes is Larry David: “I’m a Davidian,” Batalion says. “A Branch Davidian, if you will.”)
YidLife Crisis follows two single 30-something guys as they plumb the depths of modern Jewish identity — and it’s almost all in Yiddish. The decision to showcase the Yiddish cultural tradition is an attempt to save the language, which was once spoken by 12 million Jews, and to present a paradox: Using the language of the ultra-religious Ashkenazi community in secular settings ties the men’s Jewishness to their roots.
“How do we square the modern, secular, iPhone-driven life and do our ancestors a favor and preserve a culture, when our modern lives have nothing to do with it?” Batalion asks. “We wanted to understand our identity, including how we pick some observances over others.” Using Yiddish worked well. “In Yiddish, you have this interesting expressive language, and Seinfeld had this Yiddish playbook,” Batalion says. “Instead of dubbing Seinfeld, we thought we would try our version of comedy and write something that goes a little deeper while reinvigorating Yiddish humor by making it modern.”
Batalion’s character, Leizer, is rooted in hang-ups about Jewish rites and adherences. He wants to live up to most of Judaism’s obligations but struggles with the clashes of old and new worlds. Elman’s character, on the other hand, is an avowed secularist who resonates with many younger Jews who have become less attracted to religious observances and institutions.
“As a secular, cultural Jew, I embrace modernity and the evolution of Jewishness,” Batalion says. “One thing I liked, originally, about doing a show in Yiddish that explores Jewish rituals, religiosity, and culture was that it would be mainstream, online, aimed at Jews and non-Jews alike, available and accessible to the world.” Yiddish allows them to use the language of a mostly insular religious community to make arguments for progress and secularism while still upholding Jewish values and celebrating Judaism’s rituals.
“This struggle with identity is a universal one,” Elman says. “We all struggle with these issues of cultural, generation gaps and hypocrisy, and in the show we are poking fun at others, as well as ourselves, for the way we practice these rituals.”
On their website, Elman and Batalion call YidLife Crisis, which earned more than 200,000 views in its debut season, a “love letter about modern Jewish identity.” Their dynamic is a nod to classic male duos, like Jerry and George, as well as the Jewish spirit of friendly debate. The Hebrew word “hevruta” — two Jews studying together — lends itself to the Yiddish word “hevraman,” which implies a deeper friendship. “You’re buddies,” Elman says. “What Eli and I are is a kind of hevraman’s hevruta, and the street debate we have, guys like us have all the time — only in the show it’s in a more schmutzadik [dirty] way.”
YidLife Crisis has received a positive reception, and not just in the Jewish community, where Elman and Batalion thought they might get pushback.
“There’s an ongoing conversation about what we preserve about religion, as we examine what’s worth preserving and which laws are worth preserving,” Elman says. “We struck a nerve with some of the narishkeit [foolishness] that goes with the religious dogma, but what’s encouraging is that we have had nothing but responsiveness and support.” Their success has led them to expand the show to another web series, Global Shtetl, in which they tour Jewish communities around the world.
“We’re anti-extremists, on any and all sides,” Elman says. “We like poking fun at extremism, the people who think it can only be done one way. But also we point out secular hypocrisy...and ultimately try to show that we’re all the same, despite some people’s protests.”
See YidLife Crisis live on May 5 at the Stroum JCC. Details and tickets.