Undressing Avi: Feminist ‘Jewish Slut’ Sheds Web Persona To Talk Real Sex — and Politics

Nobody knew what to make of “Avi Does the Holy Land” when the first episode of the web series landed last month, introducing an outrageous young self-described “Jewish slut” whose pro-Israel enthusiasm is matched only by her libido and off-color jokes about just about everything.

But for those not put off by Avi’s raunchy style and Holocaust humor, and who stuck with the short episodes that kept coming week after week, it soon became clear that “Avi Does the Holy Land” is about much more than dirty inside jokes or, as one episode puts it, “falafel and blow-jobs.”

The web series sends a leftist anti-occupation message about blind Diaspora Israel-worship through a caricature of all that it criticizes, in the “mockumentary” tradition of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G and Borat characters, and Stephen Colbert’s faux right-wing talk-show host.

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Avi, the self-described “Canadian Jewess who came on a Birthright trip and fell in love with Israel,” has given interviews in character. But now the creator of that alter-ego, 31-year-old actress and filmmaker Aviva Zimmerman, has taken off the mask to reveal her true colors to Haaretz. Zimmerman was joined on the sofa of her Tel Aviv apartment by Danielle Angel, co-producer of the “Avi” series and classmate at the graduate program of Tel Aviv University’s film school.

“I think of this as an opportunity to show North American Jews of our generation that it’s OK to criticize Israel,” Zimmerman says of the series. “And it’s OK to read up on the occupation and to speak up about the occupation. And that if you do, that it’s fine, there is a still place for you.”

Sensitive topics are downplayed in the first few episodes because “we didn’t want Avi’s politics to be obvious,” Zimmerman explains, but subsequent episodes tackle issues such as African asylum-seekers and gay pride and pinkwashing all with Avi’s signature brashness, which is well showcased in a knock-down debate with “bellyaching leftist shithead extraordinaire” and Haaretz columnist Peter Beinart. As the series progressed, it became clear that “Avi” was a satirical vehicle. Well, clear to most. “People are still saying to me, ‘you are doing harm to Israel, sweetie, stop it,’” says Zimmerman. “There are still people who don’t get that it’s satire.”

Angel and Zimmerman take that as a compliment. They see their work in the canon of sexually audacious “strong hilarious Jewish women comic” voices like Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham and the creators of the Comedy Central series “Broad City.”

Finding inspiration for the character of “Avi” wasn’t a big challenge. “It’s out there. It’s all real, and it’s nothing new,” says Zimmerman. “When we show it to people, they say, ‘I went to university with this girl!’”

How much of Avi is in Aviva? “Fifteen-year-old Aviva was probably like Avi,” Zimmerman says, then adds quickly, “only without the blowjobs.”

Zimmerman was raised in the small Jewish community of Calgary, which “was like growing up in a shtetl,” and attended a Jewish school that taught her to be proud of and intensely connected to Israel. As far back as she can remember, “I knew I was Canadian but Israel was my homeland.” It was “pure Israel-loving, Israel can do no wrong.” At 15, she took a three-week trip to Israel, and calls the experience “ecstatic.”

Shortly afterwards, however, her feelings began to shift. The second intifada broke out, and she started attending a public high school. The doubts heightened at Ryerson University in Toronto, where she studied theater.

Israel Apartheid Week and Hillel

There, she was distressed and “shocked” by Israel Apartheid Week on campus and other pro-Palestinian activism vilifying Israel. But when she turned to Hillel for answers, she found it “super right-wing.” Her reaction to feeling alienated was to “fall off the Jewish map” after college, immersing herself in theater, writing and performing comedic and satirical political material.

But her broken love affair with Israel nagged at her. At 26, she moved here to work as an intern in documentary filmmaking for a company that eventually hired her full-time. Meanwhile, she met an Israeli who became her husband; they married and she stayed.

Through her film work, which took her frequently to the West Bank and introduced her to Palestinian activists and human rights groups, her left-wing political identity solidified. She is now part of what she calls a big group of “lefty Jews” from the Diaspora living in Tel Aviv. Many are artists or work in media, and several have been helping her with the “Avi” project.

She and Angel, a recent immigrant from Turkey — whose mother is a former Miss Israel — became interested in the idea of how to “be critical of the occupation in a satirical and subversive” way in an experimental film class.

They are both amused that more people seem offended by Avi’s sex talk than by her overt racism.

In the first installment of the series, called “7 Tips to Get Right for Birthright,” Avi instructs young Jewish women heading off on their Israel adventure to pack sunglasses, condoms and abortion pills, awarding them “triple mitzvah extra points” for having oral sex with an IDF soldier.

‘Beware of Arabs’

The filmmakers did drop a nugget of politics into the episode: When delivering her fifth Birthright tip, Avi looks directly into the camera and says sternly “Beware of Arabs.” But almost nobody picked up on it.

That element “was so blatant and overtly racist and yet that wasn’t what got people angry,” says Zimmerman. “What got people upset was talking about sexy fireman Jews and sucking off your IDF soldier.”

The dirty talk isn’t utterly gratuitous. It pokes fun at “that delicious stereotype of the American girl on Birthright who wants to sleep with a soldier” and also serves as “a metaphor for the idealization and romanticization of Israel.”

Though the two women created the project to push others towards dialogue, interestingly it has opened up a conversation with Zimmermans’ own family back in Canada.

“I’d been truly afraid to confront my community and family about what I believe,” she says. “They’ve seen who I’ve been aligning myself with, that I have worked with Palestinian artists and on projects that say some harsh things that I believe. But it’s been this character that has allowed me to say yes, this is what I’m doing and this is what I believe.”

Israel-Diaspora gap

While she feels mostly supported, some of her relatives think she’s creating lefty propaganda.

In contrast, Israeli friends and family, including those who don’t share her politics, “just find it kind of humorous.”

The humor is key to helping people let down their defenses and open up a dialogue, she says. And through it, she hopes the series will encourage young Diaspora Jews not to shy away from negative feelings about Israeli policies, and instead inspire them to engage and confront Jewish leaders.

“Let’s first joke about it, then let’s talk about it,” she says, noting that people have told her they plan to show the “Avi” videos to relatives at holiday dinners and initiate a discussion on the issues. Says Zimmerman, “That’s the highest honor I can receive.”

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