It’s been a wild ride for HOT’s new comedy drama “Chanshi,” about a young religious New Yorker who flees her fiance and runs away to Israel to fulfill some sexual fantasies.
Now “Chanshi” is premiering in the Indie Episode program at Sundance 2023, starting January 21, and the show is currently being shopped to US and international buyers.
“It’s all very unexpected, we’re in shock,” said co-director Aaron Geva. “After being on the sets at 4 a.m. without sleep, trying to create something, it’s crazy to have these really good reactions, especially from those who really know this world.”
Written, created and starring Aleeza Chanowitz, along with her fellow Sam Spiegel film school friends Geva and Mickey Triest, “Chanshi” appears to echo more than a few elements of Chanowitz’s own life, having grown up in Brooklyn in an observant Jewish household, and moved to Jerusalem when she was 21.
Chanowitz stars as her eponymous character, Chanshi, a religiously observant New Yorker engaged to the black-hatted Mendy. She abruptly hops on a plane to Israel, leaving behind the unknowns of an arranged marriage for the (mostly) sexual adventures she seeks with Israeli guys.
The show is real and more than a little raunchy, with redheaded Chanowitz playing the fearless Chanshi, a bold, brash, frum twenty-something who will stop at nothing in order to meet her real beshert — hopefully a uniform-wearing Israeli soldier with a rifle and a heart of gold.
She’s supported in Jerusalem by Noki (Marnina Schon), her erstwhile best friend, part of a klatch of religious English-speaking Jerusalemites, along with the inimitable Henry Winkler appearing as her father, Tatty, in two episodes, as he tries to pin Chanshi down from afar as she runs away from her Brooklyn life to Israel.
Winkler is a fan of Israeli television, especially “Fauda,” said Triest, and jumped at the chance to film in Israel last winter.
“That’s how Henry came to us,” she said. “He wanted to meet Lior Raz,” the star and co-creator of the Netflix action drama.
“Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” star Caroline Aaron also appears as Babshi, Chanshi’s stepmother, alongside her lifelong best friend, Elki Jacobs, who immigrated to Israel in 1979.
Some other Hebrew-speaking Americans joined Chanowitz, including Schon who attended a Jewish day school in the Bay Area, and Dor Gvirtsman, another Bay Area actor who plays fiance Mendy, and as the son of Israeli parents, had to Americanize his Israeli accent.
The entire cast felt like a “friend brings a friend” scenario, said Geva.
It’s a show that unintentionally plays off of previous Israeli TV series that helped unfold the inner workings of Jewish religious life.
In “Chanshi,” however, the characters uncover other aspects of religious life that haven’t necessarily been witnessed previously in shows like “Srugim” and “Shtisel,” “Shababnikim,” “Unchained” or “Kipat Barzel.”
This show is a twist on the world of the ultra-Orthodox, said Geva, showing a side of Orthodox Jewish life that hasn’t been shown before.
“People think of the ultra-Orthodox as black and white, and depressing,” said Triest. “They don’t know about them being fashionable or into sex.”
It’s an entire world that Chanowitz knew intimately and which she introduced to writing partners Geva and Triest.
“We didn’t know anything about it,” said Geva. “Aleeza really opened our eyes to this. There are so many kinds of religious people in Israel and in the US, it’s these micro-groups.”
Israel and Israelis were her inspiration for the show, wrote Chanowitz, who gave birth to her first child a few weeks ago and isn’t giving interviews right now.
As an American, wrote Chanowitz, Israelis think she’s rich, even though she doesn’t “come from money, nor have I made any money from the show being broadcast. Yet… I can always apply for a high-tech job.”
The three met at Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel film school, where Geva and Triest both studied screenwriting and Chanowitz focused on directing, although they reversed roles for “Chanshi.”
Chanowitz was always someone who stood out, said Geva and Triest, not just because of her long red hair and New York accent.
“She’s a personality,” said Triest.
Geva recalled a Sam Spiegel instructor who threw Chanowitz out for yelling “Present!” at roll call, and both immediately fell in love with her naturally funny, bold personality.
“She made us laugh,” said Geva.
Her Chanshi character doesn’t seem all that different from Chanowitz’s real personality.
When Geva and Triest began working on content at TV production company HOT after graduating from Sam Spiegel, they thought of Chanowitz’s potential for a new project.
“Chanowitz has a tone we love,” said Triest.
Their boss, Hot channel head of drama Mirit Toovi, had to convince her, as Chanowitz was more interested in film projects than television. That was six years ago, with filming for the series taking place last winter, following delays due to the pandemic.
They’re pleased with the reception “Chanshi” has received from its Israeli viewers, as well as from Sundance, which will screen four episodes of the show.
The show couldn’t exist without Chanowitz, added Geva.
“She’s the DNA of this thing,” he said. “When you see her, it all connects. She breaks all the conventions of the genre. It’s fun to offer this kind of twist on this kind of character, to see what she’s capable of doing.”
“And to be able to say what Chanshi isn’t,” added Triest.
“Chanshi” episodes drop every Thursday at 10 p.m. on HOT 3, HOT VOD and Next TV.
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