Film: YidLife Crisis

I've just caught up with the web series YidLife crisis, or, rather, sort of caught up. The creators, Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman, have a side-project called Global Shtetl, in which they travel to Jewish hotspots around the world, and I haven't watched that yet.

But their main project is a series of short films, largely in Yiddish, in which the two play friends who often meet in restaurants in their native Montreal and fight about food, life, and Judaism. There's a puzzling conceit at the core of the show, the idea that two modern semi-secular Jews would know Yiddish enough just to chat in it. The show never really explains this, although, in one episode, when asked about his use of Yiddish, Batalion shruggingly says that he's reviving it.

And that will do. There is something charming about the idea that a couple of people might just spontaneously decide to speak Yiddish. I mean, I'm doing it on my own in Omaha, Nebraska, where it arguably makes even less sense. Some backstory might help, but isn't necessary.

There is a real-world backstory. Both actors are graduates of Bialik High School in Montreal, and Batalion reportedly gave the valedictorian speech in Yiddish. And the pair are doing something in the real world that is as linguistically unlikely as their fictional version doppelgangers: Their reviving Yiddish as a language of comic performance. And credit to them, they dove in head-first, as both admit their spoken Yiddish is weak to near-nonexistent. There is something to be said about writing and starring in a web series in a language you almost don't know.

They've gotten dinged for it, too, by Yiddishists -- something that appears as a joke in an episode of this season. Elman speaks with an older woman, and she is at first delighted that he speaks Yiddish, and then, moments later, criticizes his grammar. I don't speak Yiddish well enough to know how accurate their Yiddish is, which seems a little beside the point anyway. Two characters who have just decided spontaneously to revive Yiddish are going to be imperfect in it anyway, and so their broken language is a necessary part of the show, reflecting the city they are in, Montreal, which is so diverse that some episodes it seems every speaks to each other in broken versions of half-learned languages.

The show is both a little less than it could be and a little more than it should be. Like many web shows, the quality of the performances can vary a lot, although the two lead actors are reliably excellent. Like many web comedies, the show sometimes lacks the razor-sharp editing that comedy requires, and so jokes will feel abrupt, or linger too long, or get punctuated oddly, as though the whole cast turned to the camera after a punch line and waggled their eyebrows. These are minor complains, and I only add them as prelude to my next paragraph, where I will discuss what that show does that I think is genuinely remarkable.

It is a product of a startling ambition. It is not just that the show tackles Yiddish, and genuinely seems to be looking to rescue Yiddish from its current status as the language of religious extremists and return it to being the language of Jewish secularism. That alone is so oversized a goal as to be enough -- or, as they frequently say on the show, genug.

But the pair are using the language expressively, as a tool of comedy, a tool of religious debate, and a tool of exploring Montreal. And sometimes, as an artists, you must say genug -- art often benefits from precision, from not tackling too many things at once.

But to prove that Yiddish can be a language of modern, secular Judaism, the show's creators must use it as the language of secularism. And they must use it to discuss anything that might be interesting to a secular Jew. It's a sort of proof-of-concept disguised as a web show, and it's using some very clever techniques to get people to look at it. Firstly, it is a comedy, and people like comedy. Secondly, the show has made infrequent use of guest stars, and they may not be Tom Hanks, but they are still the sort of actors who would be out of reach for most web shows. Howie Mandel, for one, who responds to one of the two actors with a torrent of abusive Yiddish,despite claiming that he only understands very little of the language, as though Yiddish insults are a Jewish instinct.

Most recently, the show included Mayim Bialik -- a distant cousin to the poet Bialik, the namesake of the school the two actors attended.  She appeared in character, as a potential date for one or the other castmember who turned out to be as comfortable with Yiddish as either of them. It's an interesting development -- so far, but for old people (and, for reasons very hard to explain, a Chinese couple), nobody in the series has spoken Yiddish but for the two main characters. I would be curious to them in a world where they aren't lone oddballs, speaking Yiddish with each other for who-knows-why, but instead part of a larger community of modern secular Jews who likewise have reclaimed Yiddish.

But that's just because I would like to imagine such a world. It gets lonely learning Yiddish in Omaha. I'd like to believe that, were I to get lonely enough, I could board a plane to Montreal, and there would be people there, waiting to talk to me. Even if it were only a fantasy, a story cooked up by two actors for a web series. Even that would be genug.