Why Aleeza Chanowitz's 'Chanshi' should be on everyone's must-watch list

Currently screening at the Sundance Film Festival, the episodic series created by the Brooklyn-born actress and writer is intelligent, fun, entertaining and wonderfully informative -- and we can't wait to watch it on an international streaming service!
Why Aleeza Chanowitz's 'Chanshi' should be on everyone's must-watch list

Chanshi could be just your typical 21-year old American girl: boy crazy, searching for her place in the world, fearless and good at getting herself out of trouble by telling little white lies.

Yet Chanshi (played perfectly by Aleeza Chanowitz, also the show's creator and writer) isn't you or me, unless you also belong to the ultra conservative Orthodox Jewish Lubavitch community. In her native Brooklyn, she is destined to marry someone her family approves of and become a walking uterus, pushing out babies while keeping the family home Kosher. And let's not forget, donning those signature, married woman's wigs.

Nothing about Chanshi is average, or typical in any way and even her dreams are colorful and wild. When she goes to Israel to visit her childhood best friend Noki (the pretty, and very believable Marnina Schon) she sees a land of freedom and opportunity, the chance to be herself and do as she pleases. It's not a selfish, spoiled kind of decision when she chooses to make Aliyah, the process of relocating to the Jewish homeland. Rather Chanshi sees this land, a disputed territory with a long history of partitions and violence, as her chance to find what she most desires: romance.

To those who have visited Israel, whether you're Jewish, Palestinian, Orthodox Christian or none of the above, you understand how this land feels like home. Regardless of your background or religious denomination, there is something about its streets, skies, trees and air that have made this land so coveted by all. So, it's no surprise that Chanshi feels this pull, once she sets foot in the country designated by Zionists worldwide as the Jewish promised land, and decides to stay.

Along the way, she meets a group of soldiers, she often dreams about these men in her fantasies, and a trio of Mizrahi young men -- a term which means Jews who come from the Levant. Among, them, the hottie David (played with handsome coolness by Tomer Machloof) catches her eye. And Chanshi isn't subtle, making for some great comedic moments, as well as poignant ones along the way to the duo's undeniable romance.

I got a chance to interview Chanowitz from Sundance, where the series world premiered, and we caught up via Zoom, along with the show's co-directors Mickey Triest and Aaron Geva. I started out by asking its creator about choosing this medium, a 10-episode series to tell a story that feels deeply personal. "I don't really think I know another way," Chanowitz admitted, "I would write things, send them to Aaron, one of the directors, and based on the things that were understood, or the feedback that I got from him and from other people, I managed to find a way." She went on to say, "but also one of my teachers told me this, and it sticks with me ," continuing, "he was like when you have those thoughts of something that's very awkward, makes you uncomfortable, you're embarrassed and you don't want to talk about it -- those are the things you should write down." And Chanowitz never shies away from putting herself in the midst of embarrassing situations in Chanshi. Actually, quite the opposite, from how she approaches her relationships with men, to the endless fibs she tells her friends and family, I'll admit Chanshi made me, a big grown woman blush, half approvingly but also more than a bit jealous of her unabashed spirit.

The series, much like its creator and leading lady, is also unafraid to touch upon sensitive topics, from the Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, to hints of a character having gone through "conversion therapy" to redirect her sexuality. Chanowitz dismisses any political themes in the series, "the purpose of the show for me is to do something that helps pay the bills," she said, deadpan "and also to be able to have it be entertaining." Yet if "somebody picks something up along the way, then that's great, but in terms of politics and dealing with talking about the settlements, I also feel I personally don't know enough about it."

Chanowitz herself moved to Israel from Brooklyn eleven years ago and she admitted, that "all of the politics and stuff surrounding Israel make me anxious because it's a place that I love so much and it's the only place where I really feel at home, and even Israelis, including myself, we know that it's a complicated place to live in." 

What made Chanowitz move to Israel when she was 21, I asked? "There is a familiarity because everybody's Jewish," she replied, "and for me, it was really important to be the kind of Jew that I wanted to be. And I felt like in America, I couldn't do it and in Israel, I could -- there was like the whole spectrum." She continued, explaining "you could do whatever you want, like you could keep the holidays one week, and the next week you don't have to keep Shabbat." It's a fascinating point, also discovering what makes the land so contended and why Jews keep moving there even with all the adversities they will face.

How does Chanowitz, whose last name has inspired her character's name, differ from Chanshi? "I'd like to think that I'm a bit more aware of the way my actions affect others, and conscious," she admitted.

Next, I touched on something much more superficial and that's the look of Chanshi, the series, which could, in my opinion, really launch a fashion movement. The Orthodox modest look might become hot for S/S 2024, I joked. "Tal Kilshon, she's the costume designer on the series," Chanowitz told me, "she was very open minded, and I told her, these are people who are very stylish." She continued, about the look of the show, which is simply spellbinding -- mixing long skirts with colorful peasant blouses, "I really wanted the show -- because it's a comedy, or a dramedy -- I wanted it to be very enticing for the eyes and I wanted it to be pretty. And from all the girls that are my friends, these are very stylish women. Just because they're religious, they don't have to necessarily dress in a frumpy way."

Chanowitz also touched upon her own fashion likes, "one of the inspirations that I liked for the clothes is a designer called Batsheva Hay, so we actually purchased four pieces from her for fun, for Chanshi's wardrobe," continuing "I like what she's doing, because she's a designer who's Jewish, religious, and that's important to her, but she's also very trendy." Batsheva's clothes are on Net-a-Porter and run the gamut from very conservative to outlandishly cool and her patterned blouses are the stuff fashionista's dreams are made of.

To talk about the casting of Chanshi, I asked the series' co-directors. Mickey Triest chimed in, "we had a casting director, Hila Yuval who knows Aleeza from her previous project, which is a big hit in Israel called Dismissed," where Chanowitz plays the character of Alisa, "and she did a beautiful job of casting mostly unknown actors because this project needed a lot of great actors for small parts, but who can steal the show." Aaron Geva explained further, "but finding actors in Israel who had a good American accent, who could play Americans was a challenge." Geva even reached out to women who look Jewish on Instagram, he admitted during our interview, and one of them being Marnina Schon, who plays Noki, was "kind enough not to think that I'm some weirdo," he joked. Corona, the Covid-19 worldwide pandemic, also played a part in which actors could and could not participate on the project of course, as the series was shot mostly in Jerusalem.

One of the casting coups on Chanshi is of course the presence of actor and filmmaker Henry Winkler who plays Chanshi's father "Tatty". I asked the trio how they managed to cast "the Fonz" in the role and Chanowitz admitted "I feel like people want a big story but the bottom line is Aaron sent him an email." Geva jumped in, "it also had to do with the atmosphere of the time, there was Covid going around and I think it had an effect on what people were doing." Chanowitz and Triest agreed, "I think he just loved the script. He wanted to go to Israel, and he was excited to work with young talents."

I ended by asking what the creative team behind this groundbreaking series -- a bit of a suspense tale of a character unfolding before our eyes in the tradition of Fleabag and I May Destroy You -- wish the audience to walk away feeling. Geva's first to answer, "I want them to have fun, I want them to laugh," and Chanowitz continued on his thoughts, "I want them to feel like they didn't waste their time."

Famous last words belonged to Triest, who added "I want them to be surprised, because it's surprising, where this story is going to... It's not what it seems in the beginning, where she looks like she is one thing and in the end, you realize it's something else."

Jokingly, Chanowitz chimed in with her irreverent sense of humor, which is the force that makes Chanshi such an undeniable hit. "I also want a free couch!"

Chanshi is a Kastina Communications production, with an investment from Hot.

Images courtesy of the 'Chanshi' team, used with permission.

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