The Stage Door Deli on Broadway in New York is long gone; the Carnegie Deli closed its doors across the street from Carnegie Hall over a year ago. Traditional America Jewish deli food is in retreat and the temples of overstuffed corned beef and pastrami sandwiches that once dotted big city Jewish communities in America are dropping right and left.
But in Canada, in Montreal, particularly, Jewish delis and bakeries with names like Cheskies, Schwartz’s, St-Viateur Bagel and Wilensky are thriving. The Montreal bagel with its crispy exterior and its chewy and slightly sweet interior is admired all over the world for the unique classic that it is.
So, it is not surprising that two natives of the French-speaking city, who grew up on great Jewish food, would consider it only proper that they bring the joys of the Jewish deli, Canadian style, to the lower 48.
The result is “Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal,” that closed out the 19th annual Atlanta Jewish Film Festival with two screenings last Tuesday at the Byers Theatre in Sandy Springs.
The documentary is a 24-hour food fest that follows the film’s two stars, Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman, as they eat their way through six meals and a hundred years of Jewish history in Montreal.
It’s an outgrowth of a video web series they produced, called Global Shtetl, that explored a variety of Jewish communities in London, Tel Aviv, Houston, Detroit, Toronto, New York and Krakow before coming home.
The duo, which has extensive experience with feature film and the network television projects of others, launched their own careers five years ago with $15,000 from the Shaping Our Future Grants from Montreal’s Jewish community. They are surprised they’ve come this far.
“Who could have imagined,” Elman says, “that we would still be doing this and that it would have evolved into this documentary? We love Jewish culture; we love thinking about questions of Jewish culture, identity and other cultures. We like to see how everything intersects with each other.”
Their YouTube videos have racked up 3 million page views and a loyal following since they first began in 2014, and they have been honored four times for their web series by the Canadian Screen Awards, that country’s version of the Oscars.
While food is the film’s big draw in “Chewdaism,” Montreal’s rich Jewish history is on display as well. The city that produced the likes of famed novelist Mordecai Richler and songwriter, poet and performer Leonard Cohen also nurtured political commentator Charles Krauthammer and Mort Zuckerman, who is chairman and editor-in-chief of U.S. News and World Report and publisher of the New York Daily News, among many other influential figures.
While the guide for the historical journey through Montreal is the executive director of the Museum of Jewish Montreal, all the fun in the film comes from Batalion and Elman, who have built a growing mini-comedy empire around the success of their YouTube hit, YidLife Crisis. It’s a series of short situation comedy sketches done entirely in Yiddish with English subtitles.
The first episodes took place, appropriately enough, in Montreal’s restaurants, where the pair poked fun at themselves and their Jewish heritage. It was done in a style reminiscent of the way devout Jews study the Talmud, as two chevruta, or study partners, sparring with one another.
“YidLife Crisis is trying to use what we like to call the Trojan horse of comedy to unpack complicated issues of identity,” Elman said. “We try to square our Jewish or otherwise religious and spiritual upbringing with the modern atheist, secular, profane, heretical, heathen lifestyle that we currently live.”
The Yiddish of their web series is not that of observant black hats, but rather of an adult humor grounded in the great American comedians of the past quarter century and the language of the rough and tumble streets of the Lower East Side of a hundred years ago. So, viewer discretion may be advised.
“We wanted to show the side of Montreal where the Jews are not all that ultra-Orthodox and are not all that religious,” Elman said.
“The tradition of Yiddish comedy that I guess we feel that we’re part of comes to us through the Yiddish sensibility that was passed down to us through the American Jewish comic. So, we grew up on everyone from Mel Brooks to Woody Allen to Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld and many, many more.”
“Chewdaism,” which is making the rounds of the Jewish film festival circuit, was shown last month at the Miami Jewish Film Festival as well as in Atlanta. This coming week, Batalion and Elman are back in Miami for a live show, based on their YidLife Crisis web series.