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‘It never crossed my mind that anyone gave a shtisel about us in Australia’

Elhanan Miller
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Published: 7 July 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

A Yiddish comedy duo from Canada has been astonished to find a demand for their work in Beijing, Berlin and Melbourne. ELHANAN MILLER reports.

Soon after the first YidLife Crisis comedy video appeared on YouTube, Jamie Elman was surprised by a phone call from Melbourne. It was a Jewish Studies graduate student at Monash University, who told the Canadian actor that he and his friend had reenacted the episode, in Yiddish, but replaced the treif French-Canadian dish Poutine with a cheeseburger, to appeal to an Australian audience.

“I’m still shocked that happened. It never crossed my mind that anyone gave a shtisel about us in Australia,” Elman said. “And now they’re recreating the entire episode? At that point we realised we’d struck a yiddishkeit chord, a heimish chord in various people, and it awoke something in us, too.”

Since launching their WebTV comedy series in 2014, Elman and his partner, Eli Batalion, have made Yiddish cool again, even to a non-Jewish audience. Last year, Elman read an article about the teaching of Yiddish at Peking University in Beijing. He quickly wrote the lecturer an email to inform her about the episode Yingl Belz, in which Chaimie and Leizer (Elman and Batalion) dine at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas eve, suggesting she screen it in her class.

“She wrote back and said: ‘We know you, and I already show it in class. We use you to teach Judaism in class.’” Elman and Batalion then utilised the Chinese Yiddish class to add Mandarin subtitles to the episode.

In June, the duo were guests of the Jewish Film Festival in Berlin and Brandenburg. They attended screenings of their short films Narishkayt, which follows their tour of Jewish Krakow, and Chewdaism, which tracks the Jewish history of their native Montreal through its culinary traditions.

At the Jewish Museum of Berlin, they performed a comedy and music show titled Boychiks in Berlin. The museum’s website reassured the audience in bland German that “you need neither to be Jewish, nor have knowledge of Judaism, only a sense of humour is recommended!”

Elman said that he and Batalion were raised in a “very culturally Jewish” milieu. They grew up in the neighbourhood of Cote Saint-Luc in Montreal, studied Yiddish at Bialik High School, but gradually moved away from Judaism as adult actors. It was YidLife Crisis, a project born out of a grant given to the duo by the Jewish Community Foundation in Montreal, which “triggered the 1700 years of Ashkenaz”.

“Our Ashkenazic kishkes tingled when this started,” he said.

Batalion notes how heartwarming it is to receive feedback from Jews who had grown estranged from their Judaism.

“It’s not just the Yiddish, it’s also the content we’re discussing. It’s nice to get the hechsher (kosher certification) from rabbis, who are much more religious than us, but recognise that the project - with its various parodies and critiques - is really a love letter to Judaism and comes from a place of love and years of Jewish day school.”

Accolades from the Jewish world was certainly not the point of YidLife crisis at its inception. Batalion says their goal was “to impress the 18 Yiddish academics in the project.”

“But what happened? Of course, they didn’t like it because our grammar wasn’t good enough, but everyone else did.”

Photo: Yidlife creators Jamie Elman & Eli Batalion (promotional image)

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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