A short sentence is tucked away in the closing credits of the short Israeli film “Mushkie,” which debuted this month at the Berlin International Film Festival: To my parents in Brooklyn, who I hope never see this film. The author is the film’s director, screenwriter and lead actress, Aleeza Chanowitz.
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As someone who grew up in a religious home, she’s not very keen at the prospect of her parents seeing the movie – she plays a young unmarried religious woman who not only sleeps around but has sex during her period, something prohibited under Jewish law. She poses for a photo while playing a ukulele and wearing a black lace bra.
“Mushkie” is a 12-minute film that Chanowitz directed during her third year at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem. In Berlin, it competed in the Generation 14plus category, devoted to films for young people.
Given the subject matter, it’s unclear why the Berliners included it in that category, but Chanowitz doesn’t sweat it.
She was born in Brooklyn 1990 to a father who’s a member of the Chabad Hasidic movement. She defines her mother as Modern Orthodox – “she keeps kosher but often walks around in pants.”
Her parents divorced when she was 4 and she attended a co-ed Modern Orthodox school. After high school she joined friends who came to Israel. She studied at Bar-Ilan University for a year and returned to New York, where she studied a bit of film and a bit of Judaism.
Four years ago she'd immigrated to Israel. She settled in Jerusalem, and after a visit to the Sam Spiegel school decided to register there.
She says most of the events in the movie, which she produced during her third year at the film school, are based on her personal life. This includes the scene she calls the “gray rape.”
The film is based on personal experiences, but Chanowitz believes it carries a more universal message. “Many religious girls in this generation have questions, but no one has answers for them. No one talks to them about these things, about their doubts,” she says.
“The name Mushkie is very common in Chabad; many girls are named that, after Chaya Mushka, the wife of Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. It’s no coincidence that I called the main character by that name. It’s my personal story, but I wanted it to convey something broader.”
She’s always had some doubts about religion. “No one encouraged us to ask questions,” Chanowitz says. “They always talked to us about faith, but it never really touched me.”
She spent her first year in high school at a religious school for girls, where her faith started wavering. “I was very lonely there, a bit depressed, and maybe things began with that depression,” she says. “I think that was when I started to question if God really existed.”
When she moved to Israel, far from her family, she felt much more liberated. Studying at Sam Spiegel School expanded her horizons. In one scene she takes out a tampon to have sex with her boyfriend during her period, but she says this wasn’t an act of defiance.
“This provocative act wasn’t necessarily connected to my moving away from religion. It’s connected to the way I am,” she says.
“I like attention and being looked at, and I want to show things that are a bit rude or provocative, because I know that people like that, like talking about it and think it’s interesting.”
When asked if she defines herself as religious, she hesitates for a moment. Judging by her movie, one would expect an emphatic no, but Chanowitz surprises.
“I don’t know. I can’t say that I’m not. Right now I don’t observe the Sabbath or keep kosher properly, but I do say a blessing before eating,” she says. “I light candles on the Sabbath and do things I think I’d like to continue doing even if someone came along and proved to me that there was no God.”
Her parents still live in Brooklyn, and both are still religious. She didn’t want them to see the film, but her mother insisted. She wanted to see it even when her daughter told her she was in a sex scene. Mom said she wouldn’t be judgmental.
“I sent her a copy and she said she liked it, that it made her laugh,” Chanowitz says.
Things were more complicated with her Chabadnik father. When talking about him, the difficulties are written on her face. She says that when she started studying film her father said he was worried that if she entered this world she’d end up doing immodest things. Sure enough, when she showed him an exercise she did as part of her studies, she was wearing an undershirt, something he said was immodest.
Recently, when she told him her film would be shown at the Berlin festival, he was proud of her and wanted to see it. She refused.
“But last Saturday he called and told me that he saw the trailer on the Internet. Damn, I thought, I’m seen there in a black bra playing a ukulele! He again asked when he could see the film. I feel I can’t show it to him because I’m in a sex scene. I feel I have to protect him; I don’t want to hurt him,” she says, tearing up.
“It’s hard because I really would have liked to show it to him. I think he’d like it. Telling dirty jokes is something I got from him; he has a bit of a dirty mind. I think I won’t act in my next movie; then it might be easier to show it to him.”