TheArtsYidLife
TheArtsYidLife

VIDEO: In YidLife Crisis, comedic duo takes Yiddishkeit to new high, lows

He doesn’t want to give away too much, but actor-comedian Jamie Elman is willing to say what Bay Area audiences can expect when they see “YidLive!” on stage at the Oshman Family JCC.

“People can expect indigestion,” jokes Elman who, with Eli Batalion, make up the brain trust of the Montreal-based Jewish comedy juggernaut. “They might have a headache after. Our shows have been a lot of fun, but I mean for us.”

In less than two years the duo has made a worldwide splash with their web series, “YidLife Crisis,” now in its second season. It’s a mile-high deli sandwich of comedy, a little bit “Seinfeld,” a lot “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and a bissel of Talmud study. The kicker? The series is done almost entirely in Yiddish.

The “YidLife” pair will make a few appearances in the Bay Area next week, including “YidLive!” on Thursday, June 23 at the JCC in Palo Alto.  Elman and Balation will also offer comedy and a web series master class at PianoFight in San Francisco, presented by the Jewish Film Institute. The show will include clips from the series mixed in with Q&A.

Eli Batalion (left) and Jamie Elman of “YidLife Crisis” photo/yidlifecrisis.com

How is that two handsome, worldly 30-somethings from Montreal carry on about such issues as interfaith dating, gay rights and marijuana use, all in the language of the shtetl?

In part, Elman admits, it’s a trick. He is not fluent in Yiddish, though Batalion, his close friend since childhood, is better at it. The two attended a Jewish high school in Montreal where Yiddish was taught. Factor in Yiddish-speaking grandparents and their innate feel for the language, and you have two hipsters totally down with the mamaloshen.

“It is rare in the world,” Elman says, “but not so wild in the context of Montreal, which is a big Holocaust-survivor city. Montreal has a Yiddish culture.”

With seed money from the Montreal Jewish federation and donors from both sides of the border, the two have filmed nine episodes over the two seasons and launched a travel series called the “Global Shtetl,” in which they tour Jewish neighborhoods in London, Tel Aviv, Krakow, Toronto and other cities.

In “YidLife Crisis,” the two play Chaimie and Leizer, the former a smooth operator, the latter a nerdy traditionalist. Not surprisingly, the pair comes off a bit like their Jewish comedy idols, Jerry and George from “Seinfeld.” They bicker, compete for women and debate the merits of secularism in the modern world.

They write and direct every episode, though they get some help from fluent Yiddish speakers with the scripts. Elman notes that Yiddish, like any living language, continually evolves. He’s proud that their show coined a couple of new terms, including “nakide-zelbie” (for naked selfie) and “masturbatziren” for, well, you know.

The episode that propelled them to more than 1 million YouTube views co-starred Mayim Bialik, who plays Amy Farrah-Fowler on “The Big Bang Theory” and is an Orthodox Jew. In the episode, Bialik meets the two at a sushi restaurant for a kind of speed date as arranged by Yente the Matchmaker.

“It was a great experience for us,” Elman says of the shoot. “We loved her right away and felt cut from the same cloth. All it required was showing up with kosher gluten-free bagels.”

In their show, Elman and Batalion passionately discuss Jewish life, rituals and traditions — Elman taking the dismissive secular approach, Batalion a more pious preservationist approach.

And then they get all Larry David on their audience. In the bris episode, Chaimie tries to sneak a hit off a joint, while Leizer finds himself seduced by an attractive Jew for Jesus and ends up in the bathtub.

“The characters are exaggerations of ourselves in a way,” Elman admits. “Neither of us is very observant but both of us are huge proponents of hypocrisy.”

The “Seinfeld” comparisons are apt: Originally the two considered doing a show in which they recreate classic scenes from the hit TV show, in Yiddish. Then they decided to do their own thing.

“We got into conversations about Yiddish, our culture and how to be Jewish in the 21st century in light of our secular, very modern lives that have nothing to do with being Jewish. It went from being a show about nothing, to having an opportunity to make it a show about something.”

Elman and Batalion may be new to the internet, but they are no strangers to the small screen. Elman has lived in Los Angeles for 16 years, landing roles in shows such as “Mad Men,” “House” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Batalion has worked in film, TV and musical theater.

But now the two are getting top billing on their own show. They hope to build their brand in the years ahead, delving deeper into Jewish identity and tradition, but always with an eye on getting laughs.

“It’s very Jewish to question everything,” Elman says. “That’s the whole nature of Talmudic reasoning, of chevrutas [pairing] adversaries who come at it from two sides and pick it apart at every possible angle.”

 

“YidLive!” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 23 at Oshman Family JCC’s Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. $15-$30. www.paloaltojcc.org/events/yidlive. Also 8 p.m. June 28 at PianoFight, 144 Taylor St., S.F.  $10-$13. S.F. http://bit.ly/1Zy9L5w

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.