On a witty new TV show, American Jews lust after Israel — literally
Chanshi is a nice Jewish girl from a nice Brooklyn Chabad family. She’s engaged to a nice Chabad boy, Mendy. They’re looking at wedding halls. Except when we meet her, Chanshi is aboard a last-minute flight to Israel, fantasizing about making out with about a dozen Israeli soldiers, all while standing on top of a tank.
Many American Jews fetishize Israelis — look at the way participants on any Birthright trip lust after the soldiers. Lots of Israelis also fetishize Americans, probably because of all the horny tourists. And this reductive sexualization is the starting point for Chanshi, an incisive new comedy series from Israel’s HOT network, written by and starring Brooklyn native Aleeza Chanowitz. (The show just had its U.S. premiere at Sundance, and is looking for a distributor.)
Chanshi has always chafed against the constraints of her Hasidic life in Brooklyn; she has long dreamed of Israel, which she idealizes as a land of tall, dark Israeli men, all of whom are waiting to jump her bones. So, without telling her parents or, really, her fiancé, she hops aboard a flight shortly before her own wedding is due to take place.
Upon landing, she shows up, unannounced on the doorstep of her high school best friend Noki, another good Orthodox girl who made aliyah years ago and is about to get married. It’s the first moment, of many, that Chanshi comes up against the way that the realities of Israel don’t quite match up with her fantasies. Noki does not live a life full of flirtation and hot sex, but instead lives within the insular, Anglo bubble of olim, or immigrants to Israel. And it’s just as religious a world as where Chanshi came from. But, undeterred, she decides to make aliyah and sets out to find her imagined Israel.
Chanshi bounces back and forth between this American religious bubble and the Israel of Israelis, neither of which is quite what Chanshi expects. And despite the fact that the show is something of a screwball comedy — Chanshi’s attempts to flirt with passing soldiers by licking tahini off her lips are peak cringe — its depictions of each community are true to life, with instantly recognizable details.
There’s the stumbling, painfully American-accented Hebrew of the olim and the fascination with IDF soldiers. The group of kippah srugah men — meaning they’re wearing crocheted kippahs, associated with religious Zionism in Israel — watching a nature documentary in their Nachlaot apartment, popping sunflower seeds between their teeth. A scene at the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, known for its endless lines and callous clerks, vividly brought back a time when I sobbed sitting on the Jerusalem sidewalk after attempting to navigate a visa appointment there. (Chanshi, upon learning she has to prove she’s Jewish to make aliyah, replies in confusion, “But I’m so Jewish.”)
But it’s in Chanshi’s hunt for her racially loaded ideal of “tall dark Israeli men” that the show delivers its most penetrating commentary on Israeli-American relations. After inviting herself into the house of a strange man she says looks “like a dark sexy Arab,” she aggressively tries to kiss him. When he shoves her off, saying he’s religious and shomer negiah, meaning he doesn’t touch the opposite sex, she flatly tells him it’s not true. After all, she calls the dark Israeli men of her dreams — and we all know she means Mizrahim — “dark meat, because they’re delicious.” She imagines them as strong, powerful, in some way primitive, and even though she’s drawn to that image, it’s hardly human. She’s never considered that they could be as religious as she is. (Or at least as religious as she is supposed to be.)
It’s a deft and witty presentation of the Ashkenazi superiority complex that plagues both American and Israeli Judaism. And it’s one of many scenes that showcase the diversity that is actually present in Israel, subverting stereotypes of both the sabra soldiers and sequestered Haredim.
If you’ve never set foot in the dank lobby of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior or thought about the meaning of a crocheted kippah, don’t worry; Chanshi has plenty for you, too. Though the show is from Israeli directors — Aaron Geva and Mickey Triest — and an Israeli network, it’s as much for and about American Jews as it is Israelis. At least half of it is in English and much of the cast is American, including Henry Winkler, aka the Fonz.
For better or worse, Israeli and American Jews are inextricably intertwined — a fact that Chanshi embodies in both its plot and its production. Yet still, we often don’t truly see each other.