Aleeza Chanowitz, Aaron Geva, and Mickey Triest sat down with Solzy at the Movies to discuss Chanshi during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Chanshi offers a glimpse into the lives of Olim in Israel through the lens of the titular Orthodox Jewish woman from Brooklyn. As I wrote in my review during Sundance, Chanshi feels rather cathartic in a way and presents Israeli life through an Olim lens that we rarely see in episodic television or feature films.
Chanowitz created and stars in the series while both Geva and Triest are co-directors. Marina Schon, Tomer Machloof, Lee Bader, and Oshri Cohen round out the cast along with guest stars Henry Winkler and Caroline Aaron.
The series originated in HOT in Israel and is currently seeking US distribution following four episodes premiering at Sundance. There are ten episodes in total.
What was the genesis of Chanshi?
Aleeza Chanowitz: I did three short films—one of them, they kind of got rid of when I was in film school. They all dealt with this similar character and world that is in the series. I did it just because I thought it was fun, therapeutic and that was what I knew. When I finished school, I had a meeting with Mirit [Toovi] who’s in charge of content at HOT Israeli network. She was like, Oh, she saw my short films and did you ever think about making it to the series. I really didn’t want to, because I went to film school. I was like, you make films. What I understood was the opportunity and I didn’t have anything else lined up for me. I was like, Yeah, yeah, I have so many ideas. It’s gonna be like this and that. And then, I had to figure out how to write a series. That’s how it started.
Mickey and Aaron, how did you two first come on board?
Mickey Triest: Aaron was there from the beginning.
Aaron Geva: I was a script editor six years ago and working together with Aleeza, which is very nice and—
Mickey Triest: Easy, right?
Aaron Geva: Easy. Aleeza is writing.
Mickey Triest: She’s a pro.
Aleeza Chanowitz: If you’re being sarcastic. I’m like, what, yes, I am.
Aaron Geva: It’s easy. You write new stories in five minutes and get a new script. Mickey was always part of me.
Mickey Triest: We’re like a double-header team monster.
Aaron Geva: She’s always been a part of this project in a sense. They asked us to be directors and we said, Okay. We know the project very well.
Mickey Triest: We love the project.
Aaron Geva: Aleeza said yes. Then everything—
Aleeza Chanowitz: Fell into place. Fell.
Aaron Geva: Fell, yeah.
How did casting come about?
Aaron Geva: We had a casting director, Hila Yuval, who was the best.
Aleeza Chanowitz: I auditioned once for a different show in Israel with Hila Yuval, the casting director. I really liked how the audition went and I also really liked the casting in that particular project because she doesn’t go after names. She also cares about the small parts.
Aaron Geva: Fresh faces
Mickey Triest: The show was filled with a lot of small parts. I don’t know how much did you see of it. Did you see four?
I only saw the four episodes that Sundance made available and I really want to see the next six.
Mickey Triest: You can already see that it’s full with tiny parts that steal the show. They get so specific. We found amazing actors, unknown and super talented.
Aleeza Chanowitz: They don’t really get—it’s hard in Israel because it’s such a small industry. A lot of times, we go after the Israeli celebs.
Aaron Geva: There are like ten.
Aleeza Chanowitz: Yeah. They get the same rolls over and over/.
Mickey Triest: You have to have a lot of following on Instagram, and then you get a role. We didn’t work in this way.
Aaron Geva: You have the right people and also, the US thing was tricky.
Mickey Triest: The plus side was that we had to have English speakers, mother tongue speakers, and it’s very difficult in Israel to find.
Aleeza Chanowitz: It narrowed it down.
Mickey Triest: It narrowed it down to people that were talented, unknown and ready to get on a plane
Aaron Geva: Ready to get on a plane, come to Israel to this unknown project.
Mickey Triest: Everybody loved the script from the beginning.
Aleeza Chanowitz: I think that’s just something actors say.
Mickey Triest: No, no, no, no,
Aaron Geva: Marnina, I found—
Aleeza Chanowitz: Marnina, Henry, and Caroline are famous to Aaron. You did a lot of work.
Aaron Geva: It’s hard because we didn’t have an American casting director. I just approached girls on Instagram who looked Jewish. I got blocked a lot of times because I looked like a pervert. Marnina just fell in the net. She was like, I’ll come to Israel on this plane. Henry was a big project and he just really liked the script. He wanted to come to Israel.
Mickey Triest: He was always afraid. He told us he thought that the minute he would step on Israeli soil, stood up on the plane, then world war would burst in the Middle East.
Aaron Geva: We were so lucky just to have Marnina, Dor Gvirtsman who plays Mendy, and Elki.
Aleeza Chanowitz: Dor was last minute.
Aaron Geva: Yeah. We didn’t have anyone. Elki plays the crazy wonderful woman, Chayke, in episode three. She brought Caroline, her best friend for 40 years. They always dreamed of working together.
Aleeza Chanowitz: Elki started in theater. She was only getting parts because she has an accent. I think that’s what she said. She’s only getting parts of the American, then she stopped and changed careers.
Mickey Triest: She used to be an actress and she played in Puss in Boots and then she moved to Israel, in middle of nowhere.
Aleeza Chanowitz: She went to Be’er Sheva, where everybody was missing a limb because it was right after a war.
Aaron Geva: I think it’s really nice that we have English speaking actors in Israel, but they get such small, stigmatized roles. They finally got something that is unique.
Aleeza Chanowitz: Not just the joke.
Aaron Geva: Yeah, three-dimensional characters.
Mickey Triest: That’s the answer.
Aaron Geva: Aleeza, she had to go through many auditions.
What was it like getting to work with Henry Winkler?
Aleeza Chanowitz: Well, him and Caroline—at first, I was scared. People who were coming and worked on real sets, not ones in Israel.
Aaron Geva: No trailers.
Aleeza Chanowitz: I was so great working with them because they were so professional. They didn’t just come and—I thought there was a possibility—I assumed if they’d come, they have a name, they have reputation and they’re just like, I got it and do what they want. They really asked questions. They listened to direction, they took direction, they wanted to do well. They were really professional, really fun working with them because—my fear of them being in a different league, it really wasn’t like that. Everyone kind of jammed. They’re also both very Jewish so it already made some kind of connection.
Mickey Triest: They were so excited to work on an Israeli set. I mean, they were really grateful for some reason.
Aaron Geva: With young people. Yeah, they really wanted to encourage us and be like, follow your dreams.
Mickey Triest: This is our first project, like all of us. We’ve only done short films before. They were so amazing and respectful and they pushed us to say whatever we want and to work with them.
Aleeza Chanowitz: Henry gave me some tips, also, which I haven’t used but they were good tips. One of them was, he was like, when you’re in an interview, which is what I’m supposed to do now, especially if you don’t want to answer a question, always just try to put the name of the show in—that’s so interesting because the character of Chanshi that I play…so Chanshi…push it in there.
Aaron Geva: He did a speech and he’s like, Chanshi, HOT Network, repeating that. I remember him behind the monitor, there was a hard scene—a long scene in episode nine—and he’s behind the monitors trying to make us laugh. He saw when we were under pressure.
Aleeza Chanowitz: He bought you McDonald’s.
Mickey Triest: He brought me McDonalds.
Aaron Geva: But yeah, he treated us like kids in a good way.
Mickey Triest: The best sense ever.
I love how the series focuses on Olim in Israel and issues that are currently impacting the Orthodox community.
Aleeza Chanowitz: I hope the show was relevant but I couldn’t plan and it took a long time from when they said do you want to make a series—yeah—until it actually came out, which is now. It was just very interesting. On one hand, it’s new. It hasn’t been done before. I was scared because I knew three of the people who were working on similar projects about Olim Chadashim. I knew everybody could do something and it would come out totally different, whatever everybody does. But there’s something about it, and also, the political atmosphere now, especially what’s going on in Israel and all over the world, but where we live. There’s something about the series that kind of laughs at everyone.
Aaron Geva: In a similar symmetric way.
Aleeza Chanowitz: It’s involved in the politics of people that are extreme right-wing. I think it laughs—I can’t speak English.
Aaron Geva: You’re an English speaker.
Mickey Triest: But yeah, you get it. You got what she said. Right?
Aaron Geva: I wanted to say the Orthodox thing—I think the fun thing about it is that I think for the first time, especially when you see episodes 1-4, you kind of see Chanshi finding out about so many groups. I think not all people, including me, know how diverse it is, how each group is so different. The man from the settlement is extreme but he also touches her. You see Ultra-Orthodox American women and you see David, whose Mizrahi, and he’s dati leumi.
Aleeza Chanowitz: It’s only in Israel—dati leumi.
Aaron Geva: I think that’s really nice that every episode, you see another part of this Orthodox life and how everyone has their own traditional name.
Aleeza Chanowitz: For me, it’s obvious, but it’s interesting how things that are just so obvious to me, they don’t know. I have to explain certain things.
Aaron Geva: I didn’t know what she meant.
Aleeza Chanowitz: Okay, I’m sorry. Mickey knows.
Mickey Triest: It’s okay. I’m sorry.
Aaron Geva: I’m very secular. Aleeza is teaching me everything. She brought me to Kiddush for Shabbat. I didn’t know the work.
How thrilled are you to be playing Sundance?
Mickey Triest: Very thrilled.
Aleeza Chanowitz: I’m very thrilled. The fact that we got accepted is crazy. There was always the fear of will this translate if it’s so specific to what I did in a small bubble? Will it translate to other audiences? The fact that it was accepted was kind of a stamp of, oh, yeah, they got it. They thought it was funny. They thought it was interesting. Things always get lost in translation, no matter what you watch, but enough translated that it got accepted. Now that we’re here, I’m really hoping that we’ll get someone to wants to buy the series and I can make some money. I just had a kid and I gotta pay for that. Diapers are expensive.
Aaron Geva: Forever.
Mickey Triest: Forever.
Aaron Geva: Feeding it forever.
Who would you say is the targeted demographic?
Aleeza Chanowitz: I assumed that it was around—I don’t really know if this is the targeted demographic but between 20s and 30s, just in relevant terms of themes that we touch on in terms of boundaries and things like that. There’s a lot about sexuality and—
Aaron Geva: Growing up.
Aleeza Chanowitz: Yeah. I found it was really interesting that people in Israel had have approached me on the street, when I leave the house, if I leave the house, has been so surprising to me because I have these women in their 70s who approached me. I had these young religious girls, who were 18, who approached me. I was just surprised by this man in his 40s who was like, I love the show. I’m just surprised by who’s watching it. It really doesn’t matter who I targeted because have no control over it.
Aaron Geva: You have the same experience.
Mickey Triest: Yeah, I have a lot of friends of my mother for some reason. That’s the part that I get most excited by. She has these 70-year-old friends and some of them made Aliyah to Israel when they were 1ike Chanshi at 20—
Aleeza Chanowitz: Which is a very different Israel.
Mickey Triest: Yeah, it’s a completely different Israel, but they find so much of themselves in Chanshi. They say the fantasy, the sexualization of Israel and what it’s like, they get so excited and they keep on waiting for the next episode. They keep on sending me reviews. It’s amazing. For me, for some reason, it’s the most exciting thing. That our ages can speak to these kinds of different generation.
Aleeza Chanowitz: What did you think the targeted audience was? Just curious. I have no radar.
I was thinking probably Jewish people especially with all the inside jokes.
Aleeza Chanowitz: Right. Yeah. But like in Israel—
Aaron Geva: But also, we just had an interview with someone who’s Christian. He said how many of the themes, especially Noki’s story—he really felt seen on screen.
Aleeza Chanowitz: I never could have assumed—I was thinking Jews in New York will get this, Jews in California will get this. It’s surprising. That’s why it’s also a surprising to get into Sundance. I don’t think they have a Jewish jury. (Laughs)
The hottest ticket over opening weekend is the Festival Shabbat Dinner and Lounge.
Aleeza Chanowitz: Oh, really?
Aaron Geva: It’s the hottest ticket?
Aleeza Chanowitz: You guys missed it.
Aaron Geva: Why is it the hottest ticket?
Aleeza Chanowitz: Because people love Shabbos!
There is such a high demand and they have people on the waitlist every year.
Aaron Geva: We weren’t invited.
Aleeza Chanowitz: I saw there was an article in The New York Times about how Shabbat dinners are a thing, especially in New York, and people are into Shabbos. Also, it’s a time to shut off your phone and people need that.
Mickey Triest: Interesting.
Aaron Geva: Another event we missed.
Mickey Triest: We’ve been missing a lot of events.
Lately, there has been a lot of talk about the importance of authentic representation in every area except for Jews. What thoughts do you have on that conversation?
Aleeza Chanowitz: I have a hard time with all these conversations that just make you feel bad about things that limit you when you can’t either—you also can’t get something wrong. Getting something wrong, a lot of times, it’s not even on your radar. There’s no conversation. It seems like everybody’s really open and wants to be accepting of all kinds of things. I also disagree with this whole thing of, you have to be a certain thing in order to play the same thing. We were willing to take people who are not Jewish in order to play—remember Diana? She was so funny and I thought about her playing the step-mother. She lives in Israel. She married a Jew. She’s not Jewish at all. Now we’re like, people might give us shit for something. Why does it have to be—
Mickey Triest: In the beginning, they wanted you to have a woman director.
Aleeza Chanowitz: Yeah, don’t you want a female director? I was like, I will take any director as long as it makes sense for me and for my project. By this thing of being authentic, who is being authentic when you have to follow—I don’t know these rules. I think what I can get away with, from what I’ve understood in the reviews, the fact that I’m just making fun of everyone.
Mickey Triest: That’s the solution for everything.
Aaron Geva: Yeah, the cluelessness and the characters burst into a room with whoever is in it.
Aleeza Chanowitz: The unawareness.
Aaron Geva: I think that that’s kind of the way to deal with heavy stuff.
Aleeza Chanowitz: I’m sure I offend people as well.
Mickey Triest: But when you offend everyone, then—
Aleeza Chanowitz: But sometimes you offend everyone—
Aaron Geva: Until now, we just offend and insult, that’s a blessing. That’s a bracha.
Aleeza Chanowitz: It’s interesting, also—some of the talk on Facebook that I saw, at least in the beginning, now that there has been eight episodes. Forget about Rinat (sp?), she has a personality disorder. But people also were saying—right in the beginning of the first episode—she’s laughing at IDF soldiers.
Aaron Geva: Religious people.
Aleeza Chanowitz: I was like, yeah, I am. But it was interesting. I am sure there’s a bunch of Israelis who feel like you can’t touch cross that line and you did. Sorry, not sorry.
What needs to happen for US audiences to see the rest of the series?
Mickey Triest: We need to sell the show. Help us sell the show. That’s the headline.
Aaron Geva: We’re here to sell. $10 with the—
Aleeza Chanowitz: Anything just to get people to see it and people to like us.
Mickey Triest: Up until now, everyone who interviewed us, I hope they weren’t lying—but we were really afraid that Americans won’t necessarily get it but everybody was like, when can I watch the rest of the episodes? We’re hoping that people—
Aleeza Chanowitz: Show us the money.
Mickey Triest: Show us the money, please.
Aaron Geva: I think in retrospect, it was really good that Aleeza fought for stuff that was specifically American that we couldn’t get. I think that’s kind of like—
Aleeza Chanowitz: It was one screening and I missed it—the first screening and they were here for it. They said it was very interesting how people laughed at certain things and in Israel, they laughed at very different areas.
Mickey Triest: Sometimes, it’s very interesting to analyze the laughs.
Aaron Geva: Sometimes, they’re the same. The guilty dress is number one of the laughs. They love it. But also, there’s stuff that Americans won’t get easily well, but it’s interesting to see how it’s kind of balanced.
Mickey Triest: I think it is context. I mean, the thing is context and I think this is something that comes through for every audience, intelligent audience, okay. So yes, please help us.
Chanshi is currently seeking US distribution.
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