Navigate to News section

‘Transparent’ is the Most Jewish TV Show in a While—and it’s Great

Jill Soloway’s latest offering is absorbing, sincere, and tender

Sara Ivry
October 01, 2014
Still of Jeffrey Tambor from 'Transparent.' (Amazon)
Still of Jeffrey Tambor from 'Transparent.' (Amazon)

Lech lecha, go forth.

God utters those indelible words in the 12th chapter of Genesis, telling Abram (he hasn’t yet adopted monotheism and the corresponding H in his name), “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.” Ali, the youngest of the Pfefferman clan in Jill Soloway’s break-out hit Transparent, utters those words, too.

In the eighth episode of the show—which is about a retired professor transitioning to become a woman and her three children—Ali chants the words for a waiter from Reseda who has come to cater her bat mitzvah. But having realized she doesn’t believe in God, Ali has persuaded her parents—Morty (now Maura, and played with exquisite composure by Jeffrey Tambor) and Shelly (Judith Light)—to cancel the proceedings.

Who are the kindred in this show? Do blood ties bind you or will they betray you? Who makes up family? Must we leave our birthplace—literal and metaphorical—in order to be fully ourselves? What role does faith, if any, have in these scenarios and constellations?

These questions bubble below the surface of Transparent, the most Jewish show to come along in years—and not because Soloway set a scene at the legendary Cantor’s Deli or because characters exclaim “gotteinu” and “gevalt,” or because there are references to Treblinka and the East Side J.

Jewishness with its rituals, its spiritual wrestling and doubt, its biblical stories and metaphors, is interwoven, appearing effortlessly within the narrative.

Earlier in the series, after Maura has come out to her children and moved from the family home into the trans-friendly Shangri-La apartment complex, she returns to her old house. Sarah (Amy Landecker), the eldest Pfefferman child, lives there with her girlfriend. It’s Friday night, Shabbat, and Maura is lighting candles, performing for the first time a ritual typically conducted by women. She starts to sing the blessing over candle-lighting on the Sabbath, but mistakenly starts in with the melody for Hanukkah candle lighting. She laughs, gently, and begins again.

What is so compelling is the honesty and tenderness in the undertaking. There’s no shtick or hokeyness. Nobody is rolling their eyes as Maura recites the blessing. Nobody winks at the viewer as we watch a family come together to mark the change—okay, the transition—from workday to day of rest. The fidelity to ritual and to the casual warmth in families is wholly refreshing.

Transparent, though absorbing and tender, is not without flaws. Shelly, the mother, is portrayed more as a cartoon than any other character on the show. Like her kids, Shelly struggles; her second husband has aphasia and she has nobody to help her take care of him. Yet for too much of this first season, she fussbudgets around as a Jewish mother caricature—pushing her son to date Raquel; quibbling over the purchase of tofu cream cheese; insisting on bringing extra mustard and Sweet and Low to a shiva. As the season progresses, we get to know her a bit better and we see her torment and pain, but it’s hardest to empathize with her—the character is too unrealistic among her richly textured on-screen relatives.

But what of those questions that Lech Lecha raises? As we follow Maura’s evolution, the lives of her children unravel. Ali is jobless, seemingly aimless, and throws herself into various sexual entanglements. Josh (Joshy to his family and played by Jay Duplass), has lost his job, sleeps around, and is beginning to reckon with the fact that he was taken advantage by a babysitter when he was a teenager. Sarah, a stay-a-home mom, has left her wealthy husband for an ex-girlfriend and seems first giddy, then perhaps rueful, about the choice. Will they leave the land of their father—Judaism, the trappings of the upper middle class, the intimacy of this particular family? Will they fail to accept Maura or abandon her? A friend of Maura’s makes such a prediction. Will they have to do so to gain better footing over their individual instabilities?

There’s a rabbi here too. She is the aforementioned Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) and like all the Pfeffermans (or maybe all Soloway inventions), she’s vulnerable, often defensive, wanting more. At one point, Josh comes to her shul as she’s finishing a sermon in which she tells the congregation that once the slaves had left Egypt they had to wander for 40 years so that nobody with the memory of slavery would reach the promised land. But trauma is passed down. You might not have been a slave, but if your father was, you’ve likely absorbed some of his point of view.

The Pfefferman children’s desire to anchor themselves, to get into loving relationships, to feel fulfilled and excited by life, to be unburdened, to not have secrets—these are desires they share with their father, and with so many of us. Were they to obey the words of God from Genesis and go forth, they’d inevitably be tied to home, to their kindred. Is it ever otherwise?

Editor’s note: We’ve changed a pronoun in the third paragraph from “he” to “she” in response to a reader’s suggestion that once Tambor’s character announced her transition, only female pronouns should be used, even if we were referring to the show’s opening premise. As always, we’re grateful to our eagle-eyed readers for their feedback.

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter@saraivry.