NEW YORK – If the question of how to say “naked selfie” in Yiddish has ever kept you awake at night, then the new Internet series “YidLife Crisis” will be happy to supply you with the answer.
The series is a joint effort of two actors, Eli Batalion, who plays Leizer in the series; and Jamie Elman, who plays Chaimie. The two were in Israel last month to participate in the international “Comedy for a Change” conference at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, and gave a master class.
Elman starred in the television show “American Dreams” and has made guest appearances in “House M.D.,” “Mad Men” and “CSI: NY,” as well as a number of well known movies.
In their series, Elman, 38, and Batalion, 34, two good friends from childhood and good Jewish homes, meet in local restaurants in Montreal’s multicultural Mile End neighborhood and discuss – in fluent Yiddish – a wide range of existential questions such as “who (and what) is a Jew?” “Should we fast on Yom Kippur?” and “where is it possible to find the best bagel in Montreal?”
The show’s slogan is, appropriately, “Sex, Drugs, and Milk & Meat. In Yiddish.”
The idea started two years ago, Batalion reminisces in a joint interview with Elman via Skype. Elman, who lives in Los Angeles, was visiting Montreal and the two were talking about never having done anything related to their Judaism – unless you include Elman playing the young Sigmund Freud in the movie “When Nietzsche Wept,” said Batalion.
“It was a big part of our identity but had no expression in either of our work so far, especially as most of the comedians who influenced us come from the tradition of Jewish humor,” he said.
“When you see “Seinfeld,” you don’t think about Yiddish, but a lot of the humor is based on trying to look at New York like a shtetl,” explained Batalion. “It is a tradition rich in Jewish humor, and it is true for Larry David, too, for Lena Dunham and, of course, for Mel Brooks and a lot of other comics. As Lenny Bruce once said: `If you’re from New York, you’re Jewish.’”
Elman, who participated in David’s comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” said David’s humor is very Jewish.
“There’s the odd diamond-in-the-rough moment when you get to work with an idol, like I did on `Curb’ with Larry, which, like Eli said, was a deep honor and a creative experience because the show is improvised,” Elman said.
“So that taps into something else now because now I am not restrained by the language. But I’m still restrained by a lot of other things, like the fact that it’s Larry’s story, and somebody else is directing it and all these other things going on.”
The chemistry between the two was based, among other things, on their mutual sense of humor that drew from the same roots, said Elman.
The original idea, based on their mutual love of "Seinfeld," was to reenact key scenes from the series in Yiddish, with one of them playing Jerry and the other George. But they then realized they wanted to do something original, said Elman, who did the successful guerrilla culture net series “crazy/sexy/awkward” with Jerome Sable.
“The difference between doing `YidLife’ with Eli and doing `crazy/sexy/awkward’ with Jerome is that it’s entirely ours,” Elman says. “And the beauty of this project – one of the beauties – is that we got a grant from the Jewish community and they let us do whatever we want and say whatever we want about Judaism.
“We told them in the application what we were going to talk about, which in itself was controversial. It probably came out more controversial than the way we presented it in the first place. But the truth is they’ve been nothing but supportive. So as a writer, as an artist, as an actor, we got to do whatever we wanted, and there’s nothing that compares to that creative kind of experience.”
The grant they received from the Jewish Community Foundation, an organization that promotes Jewish culture in Montreal, was enough to film four episodes.
There are a lot of net series and no single economic model is shared by all of them. Everyone finds a way to raise a budget – and in their case, Yiddish opened doors since it was an attempt to make the language more accessible to an audience that usually is not exposed to it, he explained.
It’s not just about Yiddish, or Judaism
In addition to their commitment to the language, Elman and Batalion devote each episode to a furious debate on a different question in the style of the Talmud – such as which is the best bakery in Montreal.
Chaimie and Leizer are two young bachelors, but Leizer tries as hard as he can to observe the commandments, while his friend prefers to concentrate on assimilation with non-Jewish women and hedonistic celebrations.
Elman says they are trying to understand the illogical logic with which people decide which religious customs to practice. You can run into Jews in Montreal who keep the kosher dietary laws but never go to synagogue – or the opposite.
Elman says that at home they keep kosher, except for the tradition of eating bacon on Sunday mornings. But these choices, which are usually made on a family level, define your relationship with Judaism and the way the Jewish community sees you. Mixing milk and meat, never – but to taste a bit of lobster salad once in a while? Why not, he says.
“We felt, going in from the beginning, we hoped that people who got to see the show would understand, at some point, that we’re not actually talking about Judaism or Yiddish,” Elman said. “We’re using Judaism and Yiddish to tell the story and to talk about the issues of culture and religion and dogma and hypocrisy and extremism and fundamentalism, which pervade a lot of culture and a lot of religions.
“Our target audience – it’s funny to us in a certain way, because we tell people we made a Yiddish web series, and they’re like ‘Wow, that’s so neat. Who the hell speaks Yiddish?’ And then we say ‘we subtitled it in English so don’t worry, you can watch it too.’
"Now we subtitled it in French, and we were thinking about subtitling it in Hebrew too, although it’s not particularly necessary in Israel, where basically everybody speaks fluent English. But we’ve always wanted the show to have a broader appeal to people who are into this idea of talking about culture and religion.”
How do you find good actors who know how to speak Yiddish?
“To let the cat out of the bag, Jamie does not speak Yiddish,” said Batalion. “The basics were implanted in his head ... but Jamie didn’t have the Yiddish background and didn’t have the opportunity to speak it afterwards.
“So what’s amazing about what Jamie did – I truly find it amazing and I’m going to blow smoke up his ass, as they say here – is that he learned how to convincingly portray himself as somebody who actually speaks Yiddish in, I kid you not, four days.”
“The reason that I knew I could do it phonetically was because I had five years of beginner’s Yiddish, which I really didn’t hang onto,” said Elman. “I haven’t practiced. I can speak Yiddish, I cannot have a conversation in Yiddish. I can maybe read a little bit, and I can make the sounds and I can speak Hebrew.
“But the reason I knew I could do it is because I’ve seen non-Jews who don’t speak any Yiddish do it flawlessly and we think we can coach people. I know this because Eli basically recorded the entire show for me so I could listen to what it sounded like, and I could listen to it over and over again and copied the way he was doing it. So we knew we could teach other actors.
“Our process worked in this case, and I think it can happen in any sort of permutation, is that we wrote in English originally and we translated in English letters. If we knew a good Yiddish/Hebrew word processor, maybe we would have done it like that. But we did it in English letters and we had transliterated versions and then we went over those transliterated versions.
“The reality is that the greatest translation help came in the form of my father, who doesn’t speak Yiddish regularly, but he certainly grew up in Yiddish. He thinks in Yiddish, depending on the case of what he’s thinking about. He’s a doctor.
“We find that a lot of people don’t respond to the Yiddish itself, and everyone has their own opinion of how the Yiddish has to get done. And, as you can imagine, you know no two Jews can agree on this point, period. So that’s a whole other dimension to ‘YidLife Crisis’: how to do Yiddish properly.”
“We’ve always hoped that people eventually realize – people always say, ‘Oh, this show is so Jewish,’ and we know that the show is so Jewish – but we also really think that we’re talking about all culture and religion, and we hope that people get that,” said Batalion.
“Having said that, we’ve been talking to some Israeli friends of ours, in preparation for coming to `Comedy for a Change’ in Jerusalem. And one thing that keeps coming up, that is very interesting to us and we’re very curious about how this is going to go down, is that the one place in the world where our show might not work at all and might make no sense to them is in Israel, where the idea of Jewish culture is completely flipped on its head.
“And we’ve been told by a few Israelis that maybe they like it, or maybe they don’t, or maybe certain Israelis are part of the Tel Aviv hipster community are into it, or Yiddish studies at Tel Aviv U. or Hebrew U. or something, but that in general we don’t know how this is going to be received because Israelis don’t seem to struggle with the question of Jewish identity.”
Both of them have been to Israel many times.
“In Israel, I’m no expert but we’ve heard this thing before, we get the sense that there’s a bit more of a dichotomy between religious and anti-religious Jews or self-hating Jews,” Batalion said. “
“We were joking about it earlier, and this is what we were talking about in the show, too, because to us there is a middle ground, because we are leftists, secularists, atheists, anti-religious, anti-fundamentalist, pro-culturist Jews.
“I don’t feel that we feel like we’re hipsters. We feel like we’re in the center between the hipsters of Yiddish and the academics of Yiddish, and then the general populace that might know nothing about Yiddish.
I feel like if there’s anything that we’re saying in the series, it’s that we feel very centered among other groups and don’t really know how we fit in among other groups in general. We don’t know how we fit in among ourselves.”
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