Show creator and actress Aleeza Chanowitz says she writes what she knows — and what she knows is something TV has rarely offered when it comes to stories about Jewish women.
Premiering at Sundance on Tuesday as part of the Indie Episodic Program, her new series Chanshi is drawn from her own experiences as a 21-year-old woman born in Brooklyn who moves from her observant Jewish community to Jerusalem. After her titular character Chanshi decides her engagement to a nice man she barely knows — and her future as a “walking uterus” — isn’t what she wants, she sets off to Israel to actually get what she wants. And for right now, that thing is to own her sexuality.
Moved to Israel, Chanshi — having surprised her best friend, Noki, who is facing nuptials of her own — embeds herself in the world of Olim, a community of Jewish immigrants from the United States who have created their own “mini-America” in Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood.
With her arrival, Chanshi draws her fellow immigrants out of their shells — and out of their personal limbos that see their desire for agency clash with gendered Orthodox expectation. “I started writing this series about my excitement and adventures of being a new immigrant in Israel, and how I idealized and fantasized about a certain kind of Israel, but the reality of it was very different,” the Chanshi star, who still lives in Israel, tells The Hollywood Reporter.
“American immigrants are looked at as privileged, we come here by choice, so unlike Ethiopian or Russian immigrants, if life in the Levant doesn’t suit us, we can always go back to where we came from,” she added in a statement. “It took me a few years to understand why I moved across an ocean … Despite my Orthodox parents’ openness, I wanted to be free of their watchful eye.”
The series — which hails from production company Kastina Communications, with Israeli broadcaster HOT selling the show internationally — is set primarily in Israel due to budget, Chanowitz tells THR. But through her character and those fellow women who have felt alone around her, she captures both a look into the Jewish communities of Brooklyn and Israel, as well as the experiences of the pious female immigrants who straddle both worlds, begging to just be in touch with themselves, often by breaking free of their repressed sexuality.
“I know that there will be people who will criticize or be turned off by the provocativeness of the series, but you can’t convince me that it isn’t authentic,” she says. “There is what one tells people, and how you represent yourself to the world, and then there is what really happens behind closed doors.”
The show’s exploration of immigrant life and sexuality among the Jewish women of Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood will see Chanshi encounter a diverse array of people — from the religious, secular and settlers, to Palestinians and the LGBTQIA+ community. But its exploration of sex and independence will also see her character confront her trauma and mental health, which has been affected by her religious upbringing.
It’s a series theme that Chanowitz pulled from her own first sexual encounter in Brooklyn when she was 18, which she said in an artist’s statement “was not completely consensual.”
“My immediate thought after it happened was, ‘Now I’m damaged goods, no one will want to marry me,’” she says in a statement. “I didn’t have anyone to tell, no one talks about this stuff in the community, even though it happens all the time.”
The actress added it “changed my path completely” and was part of why she made the journey out of the U.S. and to Israel. “I felt that I was no longer worthy of the life I had imagined for myself (kids, a husband with a successful business, hot water available at all times of the day),” she continued. “Israel was the perfect place to go; it’s not completely foreign, I’m not a minority, and since my Judaism is important to me, in Israel I can be the kind of Jew I want to be. I could be anybody.”
While Chanshi is comedic (think Girls or Fleabag), it will also explore the more difficult realities of its character’s — and Chanowitz’s — relationship to sexuality, using her sexual revolution and “wet dreams of Israeli soldiers” to unearth her trauma and “a continuation of a vicious cycle, where she goes from ‘prey’ to ‘predator.’”
“The tone of the show definitely changes as the series goes on, which was a creative choice,” Chanowitz explains. “I want the series to be interesting and entertaining. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, and if I pushed this boundary, well… like Philip Roth said, as long as the check clears.”
While Chanowitz created and stars in the series, with Mickey Triest and Aaron Geva directing, she’s joined by an ensemble cast that includes Henry Winkler and Caroline Aaron as her parents. Having both actors on this journey into new representational territory for Jewish women, was the stuff of dreams and a gift as the team wanted “great actors who also spoke mother tongue English, which wasn’t as easy to find in Israel as we thought.”
“Both Caroline and Henry were casting dreams that we prepared to receive immediate rejections to our proposals, but they are so generous and professional that they agreed to act in the show,” Chanowitz says. “Henry loved the opportunity of coming to Israel, Caroline was very excited to be acting alongside her best friend Elki Jacobs, and apparently they both liked the scripts.”
“The bottom line,” she adds, speaking to her co-stars, and perhaps inadvertently her larger series, “when you’re Jewish, the world is a much smaller place.”
Watch an exclusive clip of the series below.
- ‘Chanshi’ Creator on How Her Series Explores Sexuality, Trauma and the American Jewish Experience in Israel
- Check all news and articles from the latest HOLLYWOOD updates.
- Please Subscribe us at Google News.