Chanshi’ plays with American-Israeli stereotypes - review

If the series, which premiered on December 8 on Hot 3 (and which is already available on Hot VOD), were another one of Chanowitz’s short films, it could have ended there, but a plot develops.

 ALEEZA CHANOWITZ as Chanshi. (photo credit: VERED ADIR/HOT)
(photo credit: VERED ADIR/HOT)

Chanshi, a new over-the-top comedy-drama series from Hot opens with a wildly comic dream sequence showing Chanshi (played by the series creator, Aleeza Chanowitz), an American Jewish young woman, in an almost bridal white dress, kissing a gorgeous Israeli soldier, portrayed by heartthrob Oshri Cohen, and bidding him farewell on top of his tank. He has to leave and she promises to wait for him, although as she climbs down, she kisses every other soldier in the squad on the lips.

In the next frame, she awakens and it turns out she is on a flight to Israel. We soon learn she is ultra-Orthodox and engaged to be married soon and is heading to Jerusalem to surprise her best friend, who is also about to marry. But we know what is really on Chanshi’s mind and it isn’t wedding dresses or her fiancé.

In this series, which co-stars Henry Winkler and Caroline Aaron as Chanshi’s parents, Chanowitz focuses on one aspect of the Israeli-American experience that has rarely been brought to light: that American Jewish girls are often encouraged to idolize Israeli soldiers, which can translate into some interesting experiences once they arrive in Israel. With ultra-Orthodox girls, for whom premarital sex is strictly forbidden, the taboo can make this attraction even more alluring, and a small subset goes a bit wild, as Chanshi does in this series.

Chanowitz, a graduate of the Sam Spiegel School Film and Television School in Jerusalem, made two short films in which she essentially played a version of Chanshi in Mushkie (which is especially raunchy and funny) and Shabbos Kallah, both set in the world of ultra-Orthodox Americans in Jerusalem. In Chanshi, sometimes she seems more like a stand-up comedian than an actress (she has also acted in the series Dismissed), which is not necessarily bad in a sitcom.

By the end of the first episode (the first four episodes have been released to the press), she leaves her ultra-Orthodox friend’s apartment and roommates (the apartment set-up is reminiscent of the series Srugim but with English speakers) to wander the streets at night, wearing sweatpants and an American-flag sweatshirt and gets picked up by a soldier who has sex with her in an alley, during which she scratches her own cheek with her diamond engagement ring. Afterward, she stands in Zion Square and whoops with joy. Clearly, those interested in nuance or subtlety are not the target audience but if you can appreciate Chanshi’s chutzpah and empathize with her desire to escape a circumscribed kind of life, you will enjoy the show.

 CHANOWITZ and costar Henry Winkler, who plays her father. (credit: VERED ADIR/HOT) CHANOWITZ and costar Henry Winkler, who plays her father. (credit: VERED ADIR/HOT)

If the series, which premiered on December 8 on Hot 3 (and which is already available on Hot VOD), were another one of Chanowitz’s short films, it could have ended there, but a plot develops. Chanshi breaks up with her fiance long distance, deciding to move to Israel. This leads to her being teased by Israelis when she confuses the similar-sounding words for “faces” and “interior” – as so many immigrants to Israel have done – after she visits the Interior Ministry to file paperwork for her move.

What else is the series about?

THIS SERIES portrays many aspects of the American immigrant experience in Israel, and the characters speak in a mixture of Hebrew and English, as so many of us do much of the time. She also gets to know several young Mizrahi roommates and she begins falling for one of them, David (Tomer Macloof), who, in addition to being distractingly handsome, turns out to be Modern Orthodox and only interested in meeting a woman who wants to get married.

We also learn that her best friend, Noki (Marnina Schon), has a secret of her own that threatens her upcoming marriage. We glimpse of the kind of world Chanshi is fleeing from when she goes to stay with a friend of her mother’s in a religious neighborhood, who can’t imagine how Chanshi could want anything other than marriage and children. Eventually, she visits a West Bank settlement with David and picks up some strange vibes from his married friends. Winkler and Aaron appear only briefly in phone calls in these early episodes.

There is some tension between Chanowitz’s desire to show the pathos of how Chanshi has a hard time finding her place in the world and a desire to poke fun at her shamelessness. Clearly and very much by design, there is something to offend just about everyone here, from feminists to the ultra-Orthodox. Both those on the Left and the Right will find something to criticize in her West Bank visit, where she is more interested in the personal dynamics between the couple she meets there than the political aspects of the settlement movement.

Some American-born Israeli women contacted me when the trailer was released a few months ago, upset by the stereotype of American women as being sexually voracious and mindlessly attracted to Israeli soldiers; a few said they had suffered from harassment due to that stereotype when they first came to Israel. Chanowitz plays this stereotype for laughs and many will be upset that she shows how Chanshi loves the attention she gets because of it.

Representatives from Hot declined to make Chanowitz available for an interview for this article, so I didn’t get the chance to ask her about the negative connotations raised for some by the series. From seeing her at public appearances, I know that the series is at least partly autobiographical.

Those who can get past the exaggerated, almost cartoon-like humor will enjoy much in Chanshi and I admire Chanowitz for dramatizing a dynamic that is very well-known to Americans in Israel but hasn’t been discussed on screen much before.

Chanshi plays like a comic version of Unorthodox, the miniseries about an ultra-Orthodox young woman leaving the fold, crossed with Amarcord, Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical, often outrageous movie about a horny adolescent, and that’s a potent combination. We’ll have to wait for the rest of the season to air to see if Chanshi can sustain the fun.