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The Schmooze

‘Yidlife Crisis,’ the First Yiddish Sitcom

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

“Yidlife Crisis” has been a long time coming.

Back in the good old days — 60 or 70 years ago — there were Yiddish comedy serials on the radio, featuring the same cast of characters week after week. Unlike their English counterparts, however, these shows never made the jump to television. Thus, “Yidlife Crisis” can be considered the first Yiddish sitcom.

The comedy, which had its premiere in August at the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, has already had a big impact in the online Yiddish world, at least judging by my own Facebook feed. So far there are four episodes in the series, which can be seen on the show’s website and YouTube channel.

Shortly before the Toronto premiere I talked to the show’s creators, Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, to find out the backstory behind the project.

Elman and Batalion, who wrote the scripts for the show and play the two main characters, Chaimie and Leizer, are no amateurs. Both are professional writers and actors with an impressive list of mainstream film and TV roles to their credit. So what inspired them to make “Yidlife Crisis”?

The answer has to do with American comedy and their own Yiddish roots.

Both Elman and Batalion grew up in Montreal where they attended Bialik High School, one of the last Jewish day schools to still teach Yiddish (along with Hebrew, English and French). Batalion also learned Yiddish at the JPPS Elementary School, and both creators grew up hearing Yiddish from their grandparents.

But the immediate inspiration for the series came from American Jewish sitcoms like “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which, Batalion and Elson argue, get a lot of their flavor from Yiddish. So, they thought, why not go back to the roots?

Appropriately enough for a show about modern secular Jewish life, “Yidlife Crisis” takes place entirely in restaurants. Batalion and Elson argue with each other over bagels and poutine, as if over a tractate of the Talmud. They make fun of Jewishness and of themselves, as you would expect Yiddish comedians to do. The ability of Jews to make fun of themselves is one of our greatest strengths, they told me.

Naturally, a large part of the comedy comes from Yiddish itself. There is a fair amount of vulgarity, and the sound of Yiddish adds a comic aspect to the dialogue. The two actors said that they tried doing the same scenes in English and in French, but they didn’t work.

If I have one complaint about “Yidlife Crisis” it’s about the Yiddish. Batalion and Elson are talented enough to master pronunciation and intonation, but to a fluent Yiddish speaker the dialogue sounds a bit unnatural. The actors said that they consulted with several native Yiddish speakers in Montreal before producing the scripts, but perhaps next time they could find someone who could help make them more idiomatic.

In order to make such improvements, however, they first have to make more episodes. The first four were funded in large part by grants from Jewish community organizations in Montreal, but future productions will rely on private donations. Plans are already in place for further episodes, possibly to take place in other cities, so long as the budget comes through.

However it turns out, Elson and Batalion have already achieved something remarkable — making the first modern Yiddish sitcom. The program might not help secular Jews resolve their identity issues, but it’ll at least make us laugh at them.

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