The ability to parody something effectively is enhanced considerably by lived experience and a true understanding of what’s being mocked. The level of detail and specificity may only be discernible to those “in the know,” providing perhaps unneeded content to audiences coming to the subject for the first time. The Israeli comedy series Chanshi, screening as part of the Indie Episodic program at the Sundance Film Festival, is one of the best example of an insider project, one that should be tremendously enjoyable to anyone who has been through any part of what it sends up and may also provoke the wrong kind of questions from befuddled viewers with no prior run-ins with Orthodox Judaism or Israelis.
Aleeza Chanowitz plays Chanshi, an Orthodox woman who flees her Brooklyn home to surprise her best friend Noki (Marnina Schon) in Israel ahead of her wedding. But Chanshi’s reasons for showing up unannounced aren’t altruistic – she’s feeling cabin fever about her engagement and having an itch to fulfill her sexual needs with Israeli soldiers. Chanshi sticks out tremendously in a community that prides itself on modesty and obedience, and finds disapproval from every corner of her life, including her parents back home (Henry Winkler and Caroline Aaron).
The poster for this series shows Chanshi licking the ground with a plane behind her, an exaggeration of the tendency for Jews who arrive in Israel to kiss the ground of their homeland as soon as they step foot in the country. Chanshi is not subtle about her desire for exploration, but to so many in her orbit, the idea of such behavior is unimaginable. There are aunts and older friends who are walking stereotypes, talking only of marriage and wifely duties, but even those more open-minded peers of Chanshi’s, like Noki, express a commitment to the tenets of their faith and a sense that they are serving a deity who demands fidelity and good moral choices.
Chanowitz is very funny, and she clearly has ownership over her character as the show’s creator and writer. Rather than take cheap shots at a life of observance, she hones her humor to express observations and frustrations that so many within the religious community surely feel but rarely say. It’s also refreshing to see that Chanshi is not someone who travels to Israel without any knowledge of Hebrew, and the dialogue switches back and forth consistently between Hebrew and English as she tries to speak the language and often feels more comfortable in her native tongue (as do her Israeli scene partners). It’s a quick, witty show that contains such a deep dive into Judaism and Israel that anyone without an observant Jewish friend might be wholly lost almost from the first scene.
While this show is most certainly a comedy, it also deals with dramatic issues and extracts a wonderful depth from the surface-level humor. In the last of the four episodes screened at Sundance, it conveys a subtle shift towards a more serious tone, one that feels entirely earned and coherent. Chanshi’s forced friendship with a religious Israeli, David (Tomer Macloof), is layered and interesting, and the struggles Noki goes through are not the same as Chanshi’s but just as fascinating. Balancing those two genres is not an easy feat, especially with a satire, and this show does it very well.
It’s certainly possible that this show, as digested by non-Jewish audiences outside of Israel, will not be “good for the Jews.” Chanshi is not inherently likable, and it’s much easier to understand and appreciate her character flaws and idiosyncrasies with a basic sense of what her life might have been like up to this point. The image selected for the poster indicates that this is not a show that’s worried about offending, and for those who get it, it’s rich and rewarding. While Chanshi is in a sense running from her observance, it’s much more complicated than that, and this show, with its astonishingly frequent references to frum (religious) concepts, doesn’t skimp on substance. It’s a comedy that is competently and cleverly poking fun at closely-hold tenets of a large and diverse group, finding humanity and warmth throughout that exploration.
Chanshi is screening as part of the Indie Episodic program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.