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Israeli show ‘Chanshi’ explores complexity of American immigration to Israel

The wildly-popular show focuses on a woman who acts out her fantasies.

Actress Aleeza Chanowitz as Chanshi. Source: Facebook.
Actress Aleeza Chanowitz as Chanshi. Source: Facebook.

It’s easy to assume that films and television shows come together through a series of ingenious decisions, perhaps informed by dizzying datasets. But that is decidedly not how Henry Winkler–famous for playing Arthur ‘Fonzie’ Fonzarelli in “Happy Days” in the 1970s and ’80s, among other more recent roles–came to play the Jewish father “Tatty” in the new Israeli show “Chanshi.”

Winkler, 77, grew up in a Conservative Jewish home with parents who fled the Nazis in Berlin in 1939. But none of this informed his selection for the role of Chanshi’s dad, Aaron Geva, co-director of the show, said on a panel at its Feb. 2 New York premiere at Manhattan’s Sutton Place Synagogue.

It’s hard to find actors in Israel who truly speak English well, Geva said. “I just made a list of American Jews the right age,” he said. Narrowing the list by eliminating those whom he said hated Israel, he was left with five actors to consider. Winkler was his first choice, which worked out, he told the audience.

Ironically, the actor chosen for his English struggled to pronounce his on-screen daughter Chanshi’s name, Winkler told Kveller. (Another nugget in that piece: Winkler’s schedule required turning down a role in “Fauda,” but he had the latter’s star Lior Raz over on Yom Kippur.)

Israeli films and television shows have been making the rounds of late. “Shtisel” (2013-21) found its way onto Netflix. So did “Fauda,” which began in 2015 and released its fourth season earlier this year. “Srugim” (2008-12) is available on Amazon Prime. Lesser known stateside are the highly amusing shows “Shababnikim”—which also answers to “The New Black”—which opened in 2017 and is reportedly working on a third season, and “Checkout” (or “Cash Register”), which began in 2018 and can be seen on ChaiFlicks.

“Chanshi,” which is completing its 10-episode run in Israel, offers a different sort of comedic storytelling, driven by an actress. Aleeza Chanowitz wrote the show and stars in the title role as an American woman in Israel whose wandering eye cannot stay focused on her fiancé Mendy (Dov Gvirtsman), no matter how kind and attractive he is. (He is both.)

Probing eyes are evidently a theme with this show, as Chanowitz told The Hollywood Reporter about her motivation to move to Israel. “It took me a few years to understand why I moved across an ocean,” she said. “Despite my Orthodox parents’ openness, I wanted to be free of their watchful eye.”

When an Israeli soldier, upon whom Chanshi chances in a shawarma restaurant, informs that she has sauce on her face, Chanshi feels it is fate. The film offers no specific reason that Chanshi cheats on her future husband, but she enacts what may be somewhat of a common fantasy for some.

The show has captivated both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, and Sundance Film Festival selected it and just three other television shows to show from among 500.

Geva and co-director Mickey Triest were on hand to speak at the N.Y. premiere, in which two episodes were shown, followed by a question-and-answer period.

“We didn’t want him to be a loser,” Geva said of Mendy.

The director added that one of the show’s strengths is its capacity to introduce audiences to different segments of Israeli society and a range of types and degrees of Jewish ritual observance. One episode has a sequence that probes the laws of forbidden contact between unwed people, shomer negiyah.

Both directors told JNS that HBO’s “Girls” may have influenced their interpretation somewhat, but they did not think it inspired Chanowitz’s writing.

The directors noted that some American women who come to Israel have Israeli soldier fetishes, but that viewers who stick with the show will find it is deeper than stereotypes as the episodes proceed.

The actress Michal Birnbaum, who appears in two episodes of the Netflix show “Unorthodox,” joined the directors on stage and told JNS that she isn’t surprised to find “Chanshi” is so successful.

“It has universal themes,” she said. “You don’t have to be a Jew to enjoy it or relate to the conflict that is felt.”

The directors told JNS they are hoping to sell the show to Netflix, Amazon Prime or another streaming service.

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