(From left) Dor Gvirtsman, Aleeza Chanowitz, Marnina Schon and Tomer Machloof in "Chanshi." (Photo/Vered Adir, HOT)
(From left) Dor Gvirtsman, Aleeza Chanowitz, Marnina Schon and Tomer Machloof in "Chanshi." (Photo/Vered Adir, HOT)

Bay Area-raised actors join Henry Winkler in Israeli comedy ‘Chanshi’

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The cast of the forthcoming Israeli TV series “Chanshi,” which is currently in production, features two actors with Bay Area roots and diplomas from local Jewish day schools: Marnina Schon attended Tehiyah Day School, and Dor Gvirtsman graduated from Gideon Hausner in Palo Alto.

The show is a “comedic drama” about a Brooklyn-raised Orthodox woman named Chanshi (played by show creator Aleeza Chanowitz) who travels to Israel to attend her best friend’s wedding on the eve of her own wedding. Sexy hijinks ensue. Schon plays the best friend, and Gvirtsman plays Chanshi’s fiancé. Henry Winkler is in the cast as Chanshi’s father. The show will air in Israel later this year on the HOT cable network, and talks are underway with U.S. and international distributors.

“For a long time, I’ve wanted to work in Israel,” Gvirtsman, the son of Israeli parents, told J. “I loved that I was able to use my Hebrew and Israeli-ness, though I had to Americanize my Hebrew for the role.”  (His mother, Dalit Gvirtsman, is a Bay Area Hebrew teacher who also writes the Hebrew-language “BaInyanim” blog for the local Israeli community.)

Both Gvirtsman, 27, and Schon, 28, have been acting since childhood. She appeared in Berkeley Rep’s 2005 production of “Brundibar.” He portrayed Danny in an L.A. production of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen,” which came to the Palo Alto JCC in 2018. He has also played small TV roles, including on the CBS drama S.W.A.T.

While Schon and Gvirtsman didn’t know each other growing up, they’ve become good friends in L.A., where they both live. Schon’s partner, Michael O’Konis, led a USC a cappella group Gvirtsman sang in, and co-wrote a musical comedy about the NRA called “More Guns,” which all three of them performed in together before the pandemic.

Schon grew up attending both Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont and the Or Zarua Havurah, which her parents, Josh and Diane Wirtschafter, helped found. They are the same Wirtschafter family who created the “Seder in the Zoom” parody of “Fiddler on the Roof” that went viral in 2020, with Schon responding with her own parody video. (She uses Schon, her middle name, as her stage name.)

How Schon and Gvirtsman landed their roles in “Chanshi” could be considered very bashert (destined), as well as very L.A.

In August 2021, the Silverlake Independent JCC in Los Angeles posted Schon’s headshot on its Instagram account with an announcement that she would be leading its High Holiday services. The post noted that in addition to being a b’nai mitzvah tutor, Schon was an actor and a musician. An L.A.-based friend of Aaron Geva, a director of “Chanshi,” forwarded the post to him.

Geva reached out to Schon via Instagram, introducing himself and telling her about the series, then asking if she’d be interested in auditioning.

Marnina Schon and Henry Winkler in "Chanshi." (Photo/Vered Adir, HOT)
Marnina Schon and Henry Winkler in “Chanshi.” (Photo/Vered Adir, HOT)

“It was a great email courtship,” Schon admitted. “I was won over because he’s so sweet and hilarious, and after watching Aleeza’s short films, I was laughing and crying. I was obsessed.”

Schon asked Gvirtsman to help with her audition tape, and then to help prepare for her callback. She knew he’d understand the material and could switch back and forth between Hebrew and English.

When Schon was offered the role, the directors told her they also wanted Gvirtsman, whose acting they had seen on the tape. Schon left for Israel in late December, with just hours to pack for a three-month stay, as Israel was preparing to close its borders to contain the spread of the omicron variant. It was her first time in the country since 2010 when she was a teenage Bronfman Fellow.

Based on her knowledge of television production sets in the U.S., Schon found some “only in Israel” differences.

“For our first day on set, our ‘basecamp’ was inside a public bomb shelter in a park,” where hair, makeup and wardrobe were located, she said. “And on my last day of shooting, it was in a synagogue.”

One highlight of her experience was working with Henry Winkler and Caroline Aaron. (Aaron plays Chanshi’s stepmother, and is Joel’s mother on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”) “The two of them have such great chemistry,” she said. “I kept pinching myself when doing my first rehearsal with them.”

A low point was realizing after the fact that she had Covid when she filmed her character’s wedding.

“Chanshi” may sound like the next installment of what’s becoming something of a cottage industry of shows about Orthodox Jews who find fulfillment only after leaving the fold. Examples include “Unorthodox,” a 2020 dramatic series about a Hasidic woman who escapes from an unhappy arranged marriage, and “My Unorthodox Life,” a 2021 reality series about a formerly Orthodox fashion designer. But both Schon and Gvirtsman promised that their show diverges from that genre.

“Many previous portrayals of the ultra-Orthodox world have been fetishizing and harsh critiques of that world,” Schon said. “‘Chanshi’ comes from a place of love and is much more about how these particular characters have navigated this world. It’s a much more fair and gentle portrayal.”

Gvirtsman compared it to the British comedy “Fleabag,” saying, “It’s as incisive and sharp, while really getting into the raunchy and uncomfortable. It also speaks to that straddling that a lot of Jews experience between Israel and America, and this wanting to belong in both places.”

Added Schon, “American Jews are going to love this show. It’s hilarious and, in the words of the Israeli directors, it’s ‘heart-touching.’ It just hits on something so deep that hasn’t been seen before.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."