• Festivals

Sundance 2023: Raunchy Comedy Series “Chanshi” Follows a Good Jewish Girl Gone Wild

Following international acclaim for high octane thriller shows such as Fauda, Tehran and Prisoners of War, the last adapted stateside as Homeland, the Israeli television landscape now boasts a new comedy series, romantic while somewhat on the raunchy side, which has opened to rave reviews.

Fresh from its North American premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it appeared as part of its Indie Episodic Program, Chanshi follows the defiant yet charming titular character as she breaks away from her traditional observant Jewish community in Brooklyn in order to fulfill her most intimate fantasies in the Holy Land in a series whose premise tackles religion and sexuality in an unconventional and provocative manner.

Creator, writer and star Aleeza Chanowitz plays Chanshi (nickname for Chanah), a life-loving Jewish woman, engaged to be married and well on the conservative track to become a subservient wife and the mother of at least six children, when her sexual desires get the better of her during a trip to Jerusalem for her best friend’s wedding. All Chanshi wants to do is find tall, dark and handsome Israeli soldiers, have lots of sex, and essentially live her life as the adventurous, independent woman she was born to be – much to the dismay of her parents and fiancé back home, of course.

“I left my Jewish religious bubble in New York, and moved to Israel when I was 21 and idealistic,” says Chanowitz in a phone interview, during which she explains that the series is based on her own personal experiences. “I planned on writing a series about an American immigrant in Israel, and aimed to put a Western immigrant’s story center stage on Israeli TV for the first time. It took me a few years to understand why I moved across an ocean. Zionism and antisemitism were legitimate reasons for going to Israel, but on the inside, I was running away. Despite my Orthodox parents’ openness, I wanted to be free of their watchful eye.”

According to Chanowitz, within the unabashedly audacious storyline lies a more nuanced narrative relating to her own life, which will be unveiled throughout the ten-episode freshman season.

“My first sexual encounter happened in Brooklyn when I had just turned 18, and it was not completely consensual. My immediate thought after it happened was, ‘Now I’m damaged goods, no one will want to marry me.’ I didn’t have anyone to tell, no one talks about this stuff in the community, even though it happens all the time. Looking back, that was a point that changed my path completely. 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. 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.

“Not that I would wish it upon anybody (maybe just my fictional alter-ego), but I honestly like my trauma. It’s given me perspective, strength, and stories to tell. Like in real life, my difficult struggles are nuanced, dark, awkward, and, with the right attitude, pretty funny.”

While the cast primarily features up and coming local actors, two familiar American TV veterans stand out in the cameo roles of Chanshi’s father and stepmother: Golden Globe and Emmy-winning actor Henry Winkler, instantly recognizable as iconic small screen character Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli from Happy Days and more recently acting coach Gene Cousineau from Barry, and Caroline Aaron, whose credits include such films as Heartburn and Alice and, since 2017, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

“We sent Henry an email and it was good timing, he liked the script and agreed to come to Israel; and Caroline had a little block in between filming Maisel, she asked the showrunners to allow her to go, it was last minute and just getting people here during COVID, all a bit of a miracle,” admits Chanowitz. “I was scared at first, what’s going to be, maybe this was a mistake bringing someone famous who’s never been on an Israeli set and expects other standards. But they came and just went to work, took direction and listened, brought their own thing and were just like anybody else on set. They were just very professional and grateful. And I don’t think famous Israeli actors would’ve been the same way, honestly.”

Ultimately Chaowitz explains she only set out to do “something mainstream, that most people would like and at least get me to my next job, so I was taken aback when in Israel they were saying how different it is than everything else out there,“ adding that there’s “no agenda, I just want people to be entertained and want to see more of my stuff so I can create more and make money,” she concludes, laughing.

Chanshi airs locally on Israeli cable TV provider HOT, which originated internationally acclaimed shows like In Treatment and Euphoria, both adapted on HBO, and is produced by Kastina Communication and directed by Mickey Triest & Aaron Geva.