An Israeli flower among the ‘Weeds’
‘I loved bringing a character to life that wasn’t an Israeli cliche’ – Meital Dohan
When the hit American cable show Weeds introduced the character of Yael Hoffman – a sexy, provocative Israeli rabbinic school administrator – the TV blogosphere went into overdrive, causing one avid fan to write: “She’s played by a real Israeli actress with a genuine Israeli accent.”
That genuine accent belongs to Meital Dohan, who is well-known and respected back at home in Israel, but who has quietly been honing her craft in New York, as well as working in both theater and film in Israel, following her graduation from the prestigious Nissan Nativ acting school in 1998.
Now she’s a household name in the US, thanks to the Showtime series. Weeds, which is now entering its third season, is a black comedy that follows the lives of the Botwin family living in an affluent (yet fictional) Californian suburb. The show stars Mary Louise Parker as Nancy Botwin, who, after her husband suddenly drops dead, starts selling marijuana to the locals in order to support her family and keep up with the Joneses.
Dohan popped up towards the end of Season One, when Parker’s brother-in-law Andy (played by Justin Kirk) decides to apply to a Yeshiva in an effort to avoid being sent to serve in Iraq. In one of her more memorable opening scenes, she sees straight through Kirk’s ruse and promptly tells him (in Hebrew), “You’re full of shit,” before showing him the door.
Andy manages to win Yael over through his entrance essay application and in a later episode asks about the origin of her name. Yael responds: “It’s from the Book of Judges. Yael invites the leader of the enemy army into her tent, gives him milk to drink and when he falls asleep she hammers a tent stake through his skull… I guess my parents expected big things from me.”
Yael’s back-story is revealed when Andy tries to ask her out and she explains why she’s not currently dating. “Not since my lover was killed. He was my commanding officer in the Israeli army. A Hamas suicide bomber piece of shit blew him up in a pizza parlor… anyway, since hunting down Zev’s murderers I’ve sort of been concentrating on my studies.”
Dohan’s character became such a hit that the small part grew into an ongoing recurring role in Season Two. She received more blogging accolades when one writer stole a quote that Homer Simpson used after watching Yentl, declaring, “She puts the SHE back into Yeshiva.”
And Dohan is taking it all in her stride. While Israeli actors are beginning to appear on US screens more often these days, Dohan is possibly the first Israeli to have a recurring role on US television where she is actually playing a fully-fledged Israeli character.
“The producers decided they wanted an Israeli character,” Dohan told ISRAEL21c. “I helped with some of the Hebrew lines I had to say, and I was able to be involved and present my point of view on [just about] everything when we created [Yael’s] character.”
In addition to helping flesh out her role, Dohan says it was not only a great part, but also one where audiences got to see that there is more to Israel and Israelis than wars, suicide bombings, and political turmoil.
“It’s a really funny role,” she explained. “But it’s also got real depth. And the [creators] brought a wonderful cynical and sarcastic element to her character. [Yael] was a combination of seductive, crazy, and spiritual, and it was great to show a three dimensional character, especially when so many people think Israelis are all just soldiers. I loved bringing a character to life that wasn’t an Israeli cliche. This was a refreshing point of view.”
And while Dohan admits her character may not be particularly serious, the very fact that she is portraying an Israeli on US television makes for great cultural exposure. “It’s wonderful being an ambassador [for Israel],” she said.
Currently there are no plans to bring back Dohan’s character in Weeds new season, but Dohan says there’s always a chance that might change, admitting she would jump at the chance to reprise her role.
In the meantime, she’s not short of work. She’s currently dividing her time between Israel and the US. “It’s not easy leaving Israel,” she revealed. “It’s both very important to my career to work [in Israel] and it’s also my home, but I love working in America too. And I love living in New York.”
Nevertheless, she remains torn. “Acting is so much related to society’s mentality, she mused. “And in America there’s this expectation to be perfect, particularly for women and even more so for actresses.”
To this end, Dohan says she hopes that through her work she can show US society the weaknesses and imperfections of women. “Women today need to be women,” she stated emphatically. “We need to get back to our natural roots: no plastic surgery!”
Right now Dohan is working on a book of short stories entitled Love and Other Bad Habits, honing up on her English language skills as well as learning French. “My goal is to speak perfect English and French,” she stated with a conviction that you know she’s going to make happen. She’s also working on both film and television projects in the US and in Israel.
Dohan says she’s eternally grateful for the skills she learned during her time at Nissan Nativ. Even then, her talents were clearly noticeable, as she received a two-year scholarship for her studies, courtesy of the America-Israel Fund.
Her time at Nissan Nativ, she said, definitely helped her hone her craft, and put her squarely in the US spotlight. So for now she’ll remain based in New York. But, as she admitted in an earlier interview, she stills sees Israel as her home. “Israel is like my wife and New York is like my lover,” she admitted. “I need both.”
Kelly Hartog is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.