Interview with Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman of Yidlife Crisis

In 2014, two Montreal-based writers and performers, Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman, began an unusual web series: Yidlife Crisis, which consisted of a series of short comic vignettes, filmed for the web and largely performed in Yiddish. The series has now enjoyed two seasons and has included Howie Mandel and Mayim Bialik as guest stars, as well as expanding to another web series, Global Shtetl, that looks at the international Jewish community.

I emailed Batalion and Elman a series of questions about the show, Here are their responses:

Let me ask how YidLife crisis came about. I know Eli and Jamie went to school together and that Eli was the school's Yiddish valedictorian, but could you walk me through what that means, and how, years later, it leads to a Yiddish web series.

You’re basically correct. Eli’s background involved being surrounded by Yiddish speakers like his grandparents growing up, and then also leaning some Yiddish in elementary school. Jamie came to Yiddish strictly in high school. But being in Montreal, and around various institutions like the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre and Jewish Public Library that put focus on Yiddish, we were both tangentially exposed to it and a seed of sorts was planted vis-à-vis Yiddish, particularly with respect to its use in literature and performance. Later we would begin to discover that there was a Yiddish flavor in a lot of the comedy that we had come to appreciate. When meeting each other later in on life, and deciding to pair up on something that felt special to us, it was specially this notion of a Yiddish-based show that came about as the best idea.

I'm very interested in the process of making the show. How does it get written (especially in Yiddish?) How to you go about finding other actors, and how did you get Howie Mandel and Mayim Bialik involved in the show? 

We write in English, work with professional translators to get it into a high level Yiddish, then check that Yiddish flow against how we think it should be spoken and performed given the scene at hand and come up with the best version. We have been supported with grants to date to do this sort of thing. Our actors are either people that are already Yiddish capable that are particularly available in Montreal because of this history that we have in this city, or are just local actors. Howie and Mayim were each people we either had worked with or whose social networks we were somehow entrenched in. We got their attention and had the chutzpah to pitch them on being involved in something, and they both graciously agreed to do so.

I seem to recall that Yiddishists were a bit critical in the first season. How do you address the issues with making sure the show's Yiddish is accurate? How much general interest has there been in Yiddish, and do you think there has been an increase since the show came out?

We’ve taken a more traditional and academic approach to translating the Yiddish in the second season based on this feedback. We generally do like to test it out on a few people, and of course, everyone has their own subtle choices here and there, particularly choosing the better of two permissible choices (e.g. choosing the German or the Hebraic version of a word). The more people we can pass it by, the better, but it’s best to at least start with a more academic version, at least to please the academics!

We’ve recognized a small movement in learning Yiddish, particularly at the college level, but have also seen through our online promotion that there are others that are interested in learning, but just lack the resources with which to do so. Not everyone is capable of attending intensive courses at various institutions, or are aware of them, or have the time to access an online or printed resource. But we would like to think that we have definitely raised the needle for some in terms of awareness of the language and the possibility of picking it up in some way.

Could you talk about Golbal Shtetl for a moment. Did this emerge out of YidLife Crisis? How would you describe the program? You have been traveling around a fair amount -- is that a result of YidLife, and is Glocal Shtetl connected to that? 

Global Shtetl is the happy accident of purely YidLife Crisis touring and the desire, as part of our YidLife fueled travels, to be able to capture the adventures we’re going on vis-à-vis the Jewish communities of the world in different continents, countries and cities, often with a focus on Yiddish history and lingering aspects of Yiddishkayt and the Ashkenazic experience. Part of the implied “thesis” of Global Shtetl as per its name is that we’re all sort of still one Shtetl no matter how far we go, and that you will see the same migratory patterns in Canada, the UK, Australia, the US, Latin America, South Africa and of course, Israel. Granted, you’re going to find local variety and there are many complex factors that change the state of what the Jewish community has been and is in all these places, but it’s fun and interesting to find the commonalities, then find the details and points of uniqueness specific to each city.

Finally, I'd love to get a few words about Montreal, which seems important enough to the show to almost be another character. How much of the show is influenced by the specific details of the Jewish community there, and by the essentially multicultural character of the town?

As you can probably already tell, Montreal is a significant source of our content for a few reasons. For one, the Yiddish tradition in the city and the contributions of the Jewish community, particularly in various secular aspects of the city (not the least of which is our smoked meat, now espoused and literally purchased by Celine Dion no less!) Second is the city as a multicultural and multilingual template, a unique gem in North America which in some ways may be a model for more metropolises decades from now but which encapsulates what we think the best version of multiculturalism is, which is when there is fusion and cross-pollinating integration. There is a strong case for that in Montreal. And, since the city literally is where we grew up, amongst its community, it is all the more appropriate to set it there. Of course, we recognize we could easily put the show in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Brookline, Golders Green or many other largely Jewish neighborhoods, but we’re attached to Montreal for creative and personal reasons.