By Eli Batalion
I recently came across a meme which led to some light chuckle. It read: “Nothing Made You Happier Than Seeing This When Walking Into A Classroom As A Kid” and is a picture of an old school TV and VCR on a wheel-able cart. I recalled that growing up, opportunities to watch videos in class were categorically welcome with excitement (and, let’s be honest, relief) – not just in elementary school, not just in high school, but well into my bachelors, even into my masters (all the more so during my masters…)
It wasn’t because it was a diversion from learning – it was actually because it was just obvious that it was the more emotionally resonant, more absorbable, more relatable way to learn. Maybe it had to do with being part of one of the few generations in world history to grow up watching film and TV from an early age, but there was always a sense when faced with a screen in a scholastic context that gave me the feeling of “Finally, back to normal.” It was as though a lecture from a live human being in front of a room was a watered-down replacement for the output of an electronic box.
Granted, sometimes the material we’d see would leave a little to be desired, with shoddy production values and telltale signs of being shot decades earlier. That we as young video sleuths could sniff out and roll our eyes at this “second rate” content suggests that for video to work in the classroom, it had to meet a standard we were already being exposed to in our homes growing up, or nowadays , accessible on demand on the net. When that standard was met, we could learn in a way that was more holistic, where our defenses against pedantry were down and where story and spectacle consumed our imagination.
Fast forward decades later, and myself and YidLife Crisis co-creator Jamie Elman, both writers and performers with our own experiences playing both student and teacher in Jewish classrooms, decide one day there’s something oddly compelling about making a comedy web series… in Yiddish (a language we had actually been taught in school growing up in Montreal). Our initial impetus was not education, rather self-expression. But there was a part of us motivated by an unrequited desire from our own Jewish education to provide a relevant and undeniably engaging version of what we had learned, both in terms of Jewish cultural topics and the Yiddish language in specific. That meant on the Jewish content side maintaining some at-odds and real-life opinions and on the Yiddish side, providing something more modern, more “hip” and more relatable than the musings of Tevye the Milkman (whose lifestyle, shall we say, did not exactly hit the bullseye of relatability for pubescent Gen-X North Americans…)
Yes, Jewish cultural studies and even the Yiddish language are couched with layers of history requiring a largely retroactive view, but not all of it. In fact, if the notion is to keep Jewish culture and Yiddish alive, then other than stimulating a new breed of all-star archivists, some sort of contemporary practical view or example needs to be given. That was a particular artistic challenge for us – to create a nearly absurd world where characters would speak in their parents’ and grandparents’ shtetl-derived Yiddish, but in entirely modern and largely treifidike contexts, indeed a rarity to observe in the street these days. Maybe it was this very weird juxtaposition, and at the same time opportunity to “dress up” as our elders as it were, that gave us the instinct that this was going to at the very least add to the Jewish conversation.
What we didn’t expect, over and above a global audience of Jews and non-Jews that did watch and converse about our stuff, was that this in itself would become an educational tool. We’ve found out that in fact our videos actually have been played in such classrooms in as disparate places as Melbourne, Oslo and, wouldn’t you know it, the very high school that taught us Yiddish (which actually no longer teaches Yiddish) 🙁
And that made us realize, many years later, the educational value of what we were doing. Not just because it took about 13 years of Jewish day school to percolate to the top of our minds to create our particular Jewish stew but because video can undeniably serve as a powerful learning tool. And while there are great trailblazers such as G-dcast who for years have been putting out rich animated Jewish material for the classroom and beyond, we believe there is still a sizable vacuum in teaching to be fulfilled by video. This has never been more the case than now, where platforms like YouTube mean instantaneous global exposure through the click of a video upload, and where the affordability of video creation tools (e.g. high definition cameras that come standard on virtually all phones) puts nearly everyone in the position of video creator.
If our material does have educational value, it’s not simply because it’s in video format. We strive for other factors, namely, the authenticity of a personal voice. There are many ways to tell stories, but when the voice of that story being told is from an unrelatable source, a layer of skepticism forms between viewer and content. In some cases, this relatability comes in the form of demographics – youth spokespeople are chosen for youth-skewing material, ethnic spokespeople for ethnic-specific causes. But there’s also a way to bridge between demographics by interest, and that comes in the form of cultural mainstays. We found with our project that universal elements of comedy, food, and music are all things that not only draw in Jewish audiences but non-Jewish audiences alike. On top of that, we attempt to increase the relatability through topics we think are of interest to our crowd (admittedly the 40 and younger crowd, though we are not without our bubbie and zaydie groupies, believe you me!), and also attempt to bring in identifiable figures, like most recently Mayim Bialik, who graciously volunteered to do a YidLife Crisis episode with us (to be launched in a few short weeks on our YouTube page).
Last, but definitely not least, production value is mandatory. This is an area where I believe to date a lot has been lacking, and understandably so, because most Jewish educators are not experienced filmmakers. The content has to be viewed in its competitive context – not in terms of what else is going on in Jewish education, but in terms of what else students are naturally watching and experiencing in their daily multiplatform media consumption. At the end of the day, it is hard to define what production value is, except to say that in order to have it, you need a triad of financial resources, human resources and above all, great attention to detail. Building experiences is much more than capturing things on video. It’s a journey that’s crafted, and it requires significant effort to work, just like it does in our favorite films that truly transport us. Or to use a cooking analogy, there’s a difference between the technical act of heating food versus the master chef who carefully prepares the ingredients and the process by which they are added with the user experience in mind. That is the type of attention that needs to be given to great content, and while at YidLife Crisis we are very far from perfect, we strive towards doing as much with our resources as we can every single time.
I feel optimistic about the future of video as a tool for Jewish education, both fictional narrative like YidLife Crisis, but non-fictional narrative too, an area we’ve been pursuing with a travelog video series we’re calling Global Shtetl that captures similarities and differences in international Jewish communities in places as diverse as Tel Aviv, Krakow and London. Both can not only suit the way modern students are used to absorbing information, but can have a greater emotional resonance and literally speak to people in ways that other forms of education simply can’t.
If there is a people out there that knows a thing about storytelling, and certainly the ability to infuse humor in it to underscore the sensibility, it’s the Jewish people. Our forays from our rich history of novelists to the popular filmmakers of the 20th and 21st century are clear examples of this. But there seems to be a gap between our ability as a people and a culture to put to use these skills, techniques, even production values towards the purposes of “mainstream commercial” fare and stories that reflect our own culture as a people. It’s a gap and an opportunity at the same time. I hope we commit, as individuals and as a community, to leveraging the latter. In fact, I hope that we lead it.
Find YidLife Crisis’ 5-part travelog series on Tel Aviv and their new episode with Mayim Bialik in the next few weeks here
Eli Batalion is the Executive Director of YidLife Crisis