When Meital Dohan came here from Israel three years ago to further her acting career, the last thing she expected was to be cast as an administrator of a rabbinical school.
A newcomer to American audiences, the 30-year-old Dohan is known in Israel for romantic film leads, flashy magazine covers and productions like “Love and Sex On The High Holidays,” which she co-wrote. For the last six weeks she has been known to American cable viewers as Yael Hoffman on “Weeds,” a comedy about the sordid underside of suburban life and the most successful series on Showtime. The character was, in part, imagined to add a semi-serious spiritual dimension to the show, but quickly evolved into one more in tune with Dohan’s sultry Israeli roles, creating one of the most offbeat parts for a Jewish woman on modern TV.
“I have a provocative image in Israel,” Dohan, who hails from Harutzim, a village near the Negev, told The Jewish Week in an interview in Manhattan, where she now lives. “When I was reading the scripts, I saw that this was the direction they were taking the character.”
“Weeds” is about a suburban widow, Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker), who supports her family by dealing marijuana after her Jewish husband dies.
She lives with her brother-in-law, Andy (Justin Kirk) a doped-out goldbrick who has no job and corrupts her pubescent younger son.
Having joined the Army Reserves years ago, Andy faces activation and likely deployment in Iraq. But in an unlikely twist, his service is deferred when he suddenly enrolls in an unnamed nondenominational rabbinical school.
That’s where he encounters Yael, the sabra admissions director who is also a student. Initially rejected, Andy wins her over with his own version of the Torah written, in a marijuana-induced haze, on toilet paper on the floor of the men’s room at a pot-dealer’s convention.
Yael, who has nothing to do with the marijuana storyline, later explains that she is concentrating on her studies after her lover, a commanding officer in the Israeli army, was blown up by a Hamas suicide bomber in a pizzeria. She has since tracked down and killed the terrorists responsible, and in a later episode displays a bullet wound earned not in combat, but in the aftermath of a lurid tryst gone bad.
Dohan says she enjoyed the writers’ concept of Israeli women, balancing their sexuality and toughness.
“It’s kind of creating an image and then breaking it, making it funny and absurd,” she said. “The character was a paradox. She is the head of a rabbinical school who happens to be a little bit of a pervert.” But she insists the character does not strain credibility.
“I think the life we’re living in is so crazy,” says Dohan. “There are so many stories that are more crazy than anything we can imagine. Look at the Michael Jackson case.”
Dohan’s stint on the show, which ended this week (back episodes are available at Showtime On Demand) culminated in the aftermath of a scene with Yael and Andy that can’t be described in a family newspaper.
While the Yael storyline emerged from Andy’s bogus spiritual journey on the show, it had more to do with a real one by “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan.
“I’m always exploring my Judaism,” Kohan said in an interview from California. “My children attend a Jewish school, we observe Shabbos every week, I’m involved in a lot of discussion groups and Torah studies and women’s retreats. I’m trying to find my place in the religion.”
Although the show is foremost a comedy, Kohan, 36, who is also its executive producer, says “it’s never completely for laughs. Andy bitches about some of my issues.” For example, in one scene the character complains that a Jewish man married to a non-Jew would be rejected from rabbinical school, although a gay man with a Jewish partner would not. “Lord knows, we don’t always choose who to love,” he says in a monologue about intermarriage.
In Yael, Kohan wanted to create a character who, like Andy, was dealing with the loss of a loved one, but had the “spunk and sexiness” of an Israeli.
“Usually Israelis are quite areligious,” said Kohan. “We came up with a character that had been through a great deal, lost her lover, but was also searching for answers, came to America and, rather than assimilate, further was exploring her Judaism.”
Kohan would have liked the rabbinical school subplot to continue further, but the writers were constrained by the show’s limited run and had to juggle more major themes, such as Nancy’s sham marriage to a DEA agent, her teenage son’s deliberate impregnation of his college-bound girlfriend and her neighbor’s run for the town council.
“I wanted more discussion of texts and the spirituality of religions, but that was a pretty lofty goal,” says Kohan. “We only have a certain amount of time to tell stories.”
In the final cut, Andy’s experience in rabbinical school is depicted only as flirting in the hall and dancing horas with other students while singing the Naomi Shemer folk tune “Od Lo Ahavti Dai,” a scene Dohan considered suitably ridiculous.
If the show returns for a third season, Kohan says, “I’d still like to explore Andyís spiritual journey, if he’s capable of having one.”
Before “Weeds,” Dohan starred in her own Off-Off-Broadway play, “The Bath Party” and had a bit part on “The Sopranos.” But she’s enjoyed a successful theater, film and TV career in Israel, having attended the Nissan Nativ acting school and toured with the Cameri Theater. During her military service, she was a member of the Israel Defense Force’s theater troupe.
Since “Weeds,” Dohan has filmed a movie with noted Israeli director Amos Kollek, titled “LL,” in which she plays a Polish woman searching for her father. No release date is set.
She is also working on a book version of “Love and Humiliation,” an exhibit she created with photographer Karen Gillerman Harel. The photos were inspired by Dohan’s Hebrew poetry.
She also wants to bring “Bath Party,” a mostly one-woman show in which she sits in a tub and ruminates about life, to Off-Broadway.
Although she lives here most of the year, Dohan frequently returns to her home in Tel Aviv and made a point of returning during last summer’s Hezbollah conflict.
“As soon as I realized it was very serious, what I wanted to do most was get on a plane and go over there. It happened to be that I had work to do there.”
She’s the daughter of a Czech father and Austrian mother. Growing up, she says she always felt more European than Israeli and convinced herself she was French in another life.
But as the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, she identifies with Israel’s role as a Jewish haven.
“Israel is in a very hard position; a lot of people here are critical, which is really not fair,” she says. “There has never been such a country surrounded by people who don’t want you to exist. It’s a very complex situation.”