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YidLife Crisis: The Great Debate

YidLife CrisisFilmed at Limmud Conference 2015

Nu, so what exactly is a YidLife Crisis? Friends, philosophical rivals and motivational and inspirational speakers Jamie “Chaimie” Elman and Eli “Leizer” Batalion, co-creators of the world’s first 18+ (Chai and older) Yiddish web series, discuss age-old issues of religious practice versus cultural identity with some "friendly" disagreements.

Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion are lifelong performers, actors, writers, producers and musicians, occasional Jewish educators and sometimes friends. After racking up numerous credits individually, the two native Montrealers came together to explore Jewish, religious and cultural identity while paying tribute to their Jewish comic heritage in the world’s first modern Yiddish online sitcom, YidLife Crisis. The show has reached a global audience in the hundreds of thousands and brought the duo to sold out live shows across North America and Israel.

Eli: Sholem aleikhem. Mir zaynen khaymi un leyzer fun der veb-serye YidLife Crisis.

Jamie: Good afternoon, we’re Jamie and Eli, we’re the co-creators of the world’s first 18 and over or, as we like to say, Chai + Yiddish web series, YidLife Crisis.

Eli: Ladies and gentlemen, allow us to start in true Jewish fashion, with a question: By show of hands, how many people here fast on Yom Kippur?

Jamie: Hmm, ok, rather a devout crowd. I’d like to pose a follow up question to those of you who just raised your hands: How many of you who fast on Yom Kippur also brush your teeth on Yom Kippur, or chew gum, mouthwash, breath mints for the synagogue breath in the middle of the afternoon on the day? You know what I’m talking about. Do you still call that fasting? Is that still halachically…

Eli: Jamie, take it easy, it’s fine. This variety of responses is very interesting and will help illustrate the point of today’s talk, which is, what exactly is a YidLife Crisis? A term that we coined which hopefully will end up in Wikipedia.

Jamie: We hope so. Now, the clip you just saw was from our Season 2 premiere, we call it “Off The Top.” I can assure you when we shot the first season of the show back in summer of 2014, we never imagined that anyone would see it, let alone the fact that our work would be shown all over the world and that we’d eventually end up getting invited to prestigious places like Limmud and these very JDOV talks, which we are indeed very grateful for being included in, we’re honoured.

Eli: Thank you. YidLife Crisis began as a passion project. Jamie and I grew up in Montreal, in a tight-knit traditional Jewish community. We went to Jewish day school, Jewish summer camps, we finagled our way into as many Israel trips as possible – if it was Jewy and in Montreal before the age of 18, we probably did it. We also studied the Yiddish language at Bialik High School, one of the few institutions in Montreal that were preserving the Yiddish language, including a world-renowned Yiddish theatre as well as the Jewish Public Library.
Notwithstanding this, after graduating high school, Jamie and I would go on to entirely different worlds and careers in media and entertainment, making movies, television, theatre, music, and of course, mishigas. But, at a certain point, Jamie and I decided we should do a project together, we were fans of each others’ work, and we decided to do something based on the very real conversations that we had together where we tried to square this traditional Jewish upbringing that we came from, from this totally secular adult world we had encountered. And, we decided to do it in the Yiddish language, for a variety of reasons: to preserve the language, to pay tribute to our upbringing, and to make a little comedic nod to our Jewish comedy heroes many of which we believe were deeply influenced by a Yiddish comedy tradition.

Jamie: Indeed, we wanted to ‘take something old and make it new again’, make it accessible to the proverbial ‘YouTube generation’. But what my partner occasionally shies away from mentioning is that most Yiddish speakers throughout the world today are the ultra-Orthodox, who use it, at least to an extent, as a way of keeping the Jewish community separate, isolated. I believe that Judaism can, and always has, and must continue to push beyond itself, if it is going to be accessible and if it’s going to survive actually, in the modern world. This applies not only to Jews, but for me to anyone along the religious or political or secular spectrum. I’m not judgmental, but I do judge the judgers, the ‘judgmental-ists’, if you will. And so using Yiddish in an entirely secular environment appealed to me. And it was a way of nodding to one of the main themes of our series, which is hypocrisy.

So, hypocrisy. For an example, I know a lot of Jews who would never consider going to Shabbat services on a Saturday morning, who would never go to synagogue for Shabbat. If some sort of bar mitzvah or life cycle event comes up that interferes with their weekend plans they’re livid, but chas v’shalom, God forbid, I should suggest skipping going to synagogue on Yom Kippur, what kind of a heretic am I, you know what I mean, what sort of insane…

Eli: Ok, Ok… –

Jamie: no no, wait wait wait, one more thing, one second. One more that I like this one too that I was just thinking about the Seder – this always kills me – is we lead the Seder and Eli, is a meticulous, impressive Hebrew speed-reader, but he’s one of those guys, I’m sorry, just give me one second… he insists on reading every single word of the Haggadah, and yet I know for a fact – and I say this with all due respect, you know I love you– but he does not know what he’s saying. He does not know what all those words mean and I think that most people don’t actually if you were to, you know, test them, and I’m also convinced that if they, or you… and again I’m almost done, if they knew, if they just looked at the English of some of the stuff they were saying, I’m convinced they would toss out half the service as being sexist, generally xenophobic and occasionally, just pure narishkeit – that’s Yiddish for nonsense.
Having said that, I do love the Seder, I love the Seder, I love sitting around, I love the beautiful meal, I love the least four glasses of wine, I love the singing, I love reuniting with my family. And to me, that is Judaism at its purest.

Eli: OK, you’re done? Umm, speaking of purity – I just got to say this – or impurity, my ’esteemed’ colleague here might not realize that the reason why you might read the entirety of the Haggadah is to fulfill an age-old ritual that ties you to your past, and the certainty of that action speaks louder than any of the loose and immeasurable “good intentions” that one might think one has. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Jewish culture, but without these milestone religious rituals, it’s very, very difficult and one might find themselves on a slippery slope of “feel-good Judaism,” that, I dunno, could lead to such things as dating non-Jewish women – sorry Mrs. Elman, cat’s out the bag – and, you know, leading to such things as ending the entire Jewish bloodline. No biggie.

Jamie: Um… first of all, I do not only date non-Jewish women, that is not true, I admit that I date women and it’s something I suggest you try at some point. But hang on, to my chevreman’s point here about the matrilineal blood-line. That is categorically not biblical, that is not God-given, Ok, that is a man-made conceit, that is Talmudic or rabbinical, that has nothing to do with God who, I might as well say since you now went down that path, did not write the Torah because he doesn’t exist, well no, but you… and it doesn’t matter and that’s OK, that he or she or it, or whatever you want to call it, doesn’t exist because I think that Judaism is still beautiful and has these incredibly profound traditions and rituals and a value system, that you know that I cherish, and that have nothing to do with ancient religious practice. Let’s go back to this…

Eli: OK, forget the script, there’s no more script anymore. I just want to point out the irony that this is all coming from a guy who smokes joints on Yom Kippur, but refuses to do an audition on Yom Kippur because it’s ‘Yontef’. Or eats non-Kosher meat without any problems, but categorically will not touch shellfish, pork or cheeseburgers.

Jamie: Because it’s gross.

Eli: How does that make sense?

Jamie: Because it’s gross, the flavours of the cheese.

Eli: Or even better, even better, beautifully sings the Shema only when he is getting blood-tested for a venereal disease at the Jewish General Hospital, honestly, honestly.

Jamie: And this is from the guy, the “practicing” Jew who wraps tefillin “daily” – I’m sharing a room with him upstairs, daily, it’s not daily.

Eli: You don’t see me the whole time.

Jamie: And hang on a second, is this the guy, did you or did you not call me on was it the 4th or 5th day of Passover, because you were craving pizza, to take you out for a slice. I believe it’s an eight day holiday.

Eli: It was a thin crust pizza!

Jamie: That’s leavened bread!

Eli: It was not leavened!

Jamie: It’s chumetz!

Jamie: Says the self-righteous, holier than thou, Conservative, Zionist ass ben zona, Poilisher! Gey kaken in yam, du farkakte mishiganer!

Eli: Says the self-hating, holier than thou, Leftist Bundist Anarchist mishiganer, schmendrick, Lutvak! Oy, kh’vell aich gebn a zetz in tuchus, zolstu khapn a khaleria, du vilde chaye!

Jamie: And that, ladies and gentleman, is the “YidLife Crisis.” It’s the struggle of identity that we battle between each other, and within ourselves. It’s a struggle as old as that between God and Jonah, and Abraham and Moses; between Hillel and Shammai; Dzigan and Shumacher; and now, in our own admittedly ridiculous way, us.

Eli: We’re sorry. We see Judaism as the debate itself. We have a long history of debate as a people, through Talmudic reasoning, the dialectical approach of chevrutah, finding the “other” as a necessary opposite with which to have a fertile conversation. The devil’s advocate, if you will.

Jamie: We love that Judaism is about asking questions, it has always been about questioning, it promotes questioning. This is how we discover our ever-evolving identity, as individuals and as a People. Our thesis is that at the end of the day we’re all just ISH. Jew-ish, Kosher-ish, Brit-ish, Yidd-ish…

Eli: We’re Goy-ish, we’re Boy-ish, we’re Girl-ish. You get the picture. The question is how far you take the debate and conceive of it – is it just a shouting match, or is it an opportunity to listen, to learn, to be challenged, and to grow from it? You can choose to make the debate a form of war…

Jamie: Or you can make it an art form. We chose art.

Eli: Well, it’s Artsy. I wouldn’t go that far, really. It’s artisanal at best. It’s Art-ish.
Jamie: OK, it’s art-ish. The point is: embrace the debate.

Eli: Embrace the crisis from within and without.

Jamie: Practice your religion, your spirituality, your identity any way you want. It’s yours. And next time you feel like having a little nosh, a little snack on Yom Kippur day, you know what…

Eli: Don’t do it. A groissen dank Jamie: Do it. Thank you very much.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License