Pfefferman Family Matters
There was an unanswered question at the heart of the first season of Transparent, the TV-show-not-for-TVs, produced by an Internet retail behemoth, that earned so much love last year. It was a question apparent from the show’s title sequence, but no one, despite a vast ocean of thinkpieces and increasingly rapturous reviews, seemed to ask it directly. And yet it’s the question that Jill Soloway, the show’s creator and director, has devoted the show’s second season to answering.
Want to know what it is? Watch the title sequence again with me—or, better yet, watch it with Slate’s Stephen Vider. As he points out, the clips you’ll see are “culled mostly from video clips of bar and bat mitzvah videos from the 1960s to the ’90s,” but there are also a few shots from Frank Simon’s The Queen (1968), a “rarely seen and ground-breaking documentary of the 1967 New York Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant” and “one of the earliest screen portrayals of the lives of ‘female impersonators.’” Vider expertly explains how important that documentary footage is, rooting the show’s representation of a transgender woman’s journey in the history of transgender activism and its capture on film.
But there’s another question one could ask: Why all the bar and bat mitzvahs to begin with? Why should this groundbreaking, frankly activist show about a transgender woman’s journey be so deeply Jewish?
In case you missed it somehow, the first season of Transparent was really Jewish. Extraordinarily, shockingly, disarmingly so. Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker’s television critic, wrote, “Excitingly, it’s the most Jewish show I’ve seen on TV”; theForward called it “the Jewiest show ever.” Jewish references, language, and practices were deployed sensitively and thoughtfully; a rabbi was consulted.
This was no accident. After the pilot went online, but before the first season was picked up for production, Soloway told an interviewer, “I want it to be really, really Jewy… The old adage is ‘Write Jewish, cast British.’ You’re supposed to write the Jewish anxieties, but then take out any references to Tu B’Shevat and make sure that the actors look WASP-y. So I think I’m gonna subvert that and write Jewish, cast Jewish, act Jewish, fall apart Jewish, make mistakes Jewish, cry Jewish.” In that sense, the show represents the culmination of years of increasing Jewish commitment on Soloway’s part, in which she attended Reboot, founded East Side Jews, got called “the face of the future of Judaism,” and became the punchline of a joke that Hollywood people could make when things get too Jewy (listen to Carrie Brownstein’s interview on WTF, for example). And, of course, Jewishness makes sense on Transparent simply because of autobiography: Soloway was inspired to create the show because her parent transitioned in real life, and her own family does happen to be Jewish.
Still—and notwithstanding that Soloway should write whatever she wants, especially since she’s doing it so well—the question the show raised is this: Is it just incidental that the Pfeffermans happen to be Jews, or does it make some deeper kind of sense to tell these two stories—the story of a broken contemporary Jewish family in L.A., and the story of a transgender woman finding her true self—together?
It’s fair to ask this because the two stories don’t seem to line up, in terms of stakes. The story of transgender people, right now, is nothing if not universal. It’s about all of our bodies, all of our genitals, all of our bathrooms and pronouns and fantasies and the children we’re raising. It’s about laws: not for nothing, Soloway devoted her speech, after receiving an Emmy for her work on the show, to our country’s “trans civil rights problem” and asked the audience to support the passage of an equal rights bill. You’re simply not allowed to say, in 2015, “Yeah, that trans thing is not something I really care about.”
But the story of a family in contemporary L.A. figuring out the place of Jewishness in their lives? Their plans for Yom Kippur break fasts, feelings about rabbinic authority, preferences in wedding bands? You’re allowed to not care about that even if you’re, say, a Jew from Boston, let alone a member of the rest of the nationwide television-consuming audience. It’s the epitome of particular, almost exactly the opposite of a universal story.
So, if you will: Does the family’s being Jewish really have anything to do with the transgender experience, any more than being Irish or Hindu or Ojibwe would? Couldn’t Transparent just have easily been about another family, in any other place, reacting to this major shift that’s happening around all of us?
In a simple sense, the new season of Transparent does what any second season should do: it goes on. It spins out Maura’s story, and the story of her former wife, and her three adult children, taking each of them a few steps further as they flail for pleasure, happiness, and love. They employ all the current approaches: there’s a new pregnancy, several new partners, a new sexual orientation, a new fetish. I don’t want to spoil any of this, but just as in season one, the plots are heartbreaking, advanced through sharp dialogue and performed masterfully by an astonishing cast. We get to see Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gabi Hoffman) in better places than we’ve seen them before—happily coupled, optimistic—while Sarah (Amy Landecker) falls apart with a vengeance, in scenes hilarious and wrenching. Maura, played brilliantly by Jeffrey Tambor, moves forward, too, and we learn more about her body, her sexual desires, and her tenuous position as a transgender woman vis-à-vis feminists and women’s rights activists.
The most striking feature of the new season, though, is a series of flashbacks that reach back much further than that 1994 weekend that meant so much in the first season. We’re talking Berlin, 1933, now, where we discover both a familial and cultural-historical origin for Maura Pfefferman. Maura’s mother, Rose, in the present of the show, is stashed away, nearly silent, in a home some distance from LA. But in Weimar Berlin, she was a teenager whose family turns out to have been intimately connected with the world’s most important prewar sexological thinker and activist, Magnus Hirschfeld.
You may never have heard of Hirschfeld, but you’ve probably seen some of his books—on fire. At the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Science) that he founded in Berlin in 1919, Hirschfeld built up the most important library in Europe for sexological research, which was eventually ravaged and burned by Hitler’s youth brigades in May 1933. Before the cataclysm, Hirschfeld had pioneered the study of human sexuality as well as advocacy for sexual minorities. He surveyed thousands of people about their sexuality, long before Alfred Kinsey. He helped convince international celebrities, like Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, to petition against the legal persecution of homosexuals in Germany. And, most relevant toTransparent, he coined the term “transsexual,” performed the first genital reassignment surgery, and gave what we would now call transgender people jobs at his institute.
Did I mention he was Jewish?
Not all the pioneers of the scientific study of sexuality, nor all early advocates of the rights for LGBTQ people, were Jews, of course. Non-Jews like Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis predated Hirschfeld, and non-Jews like Kinsey, as well as Masters and Johnson, followed after him. But Hirschfeld was a giant in a field to which many Jews, from Sigmund Freud and Emma Goldman, to Herbert Marcuse and Betty Freidan, to Dennis Altman and Ruth Westheimer, have contributed powerfully. He is not nearly as well-known as he deserves to be.
That Soloway and her crew go here is testament to their seriousness about Jewishness as well as transgender issues. The show’s “transfirmative action” program—which aims to hire as many transgender crewmembers as possible—hasattracted more attention, but Soloway also hasn’t messed around when it comes to bringing in people with more concern for Jewish history than you typically find in a writer’s room. And it goes further than a consulting rabbi. Take, for example, one staff writer, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, credited with a couple of the early episodes this season. The son of a Tulsa rabbi, Fitzerman-Blue is the author, aside from hisHollywood credits, of an obscure academic article, “Consanguineous Marriage for Jews in Rhode Island.” It’s about a little-known Rhode Island statute, on the books since the 1760s, that gives Jews in the Ocean State special permission for uncle-niece marriages considered incestuous for everyone else. He’s not, in another words, just another Jewish comedy writer, but someone with the skills and the patience to comb through academic research to deepen and complicate the stories he’s telling, and we see the results of this kind of commitment all through this season.
It’s a bit of a shame, then, that the historical flashbacks aren’t as sure-footedly executed as the contemporary scenes in Transparent. Interestingly, in a somewhat theatrical gesture, cast members carry over from last season, with Emily Robinson, who played the 12-year-old Ally, returning now as Maura’s mother, and Michaela Watkins, who showed up as the supportive wife of a cross-dressing man in season one, here again as Maura’s grandmother. But instead of speaking German or Yiddish, they speak English with slightly corny accents that would pass at an improv show, but ring somewhat false here, given how meticulously the show nails every little detail about life in contemporary LA. There’s also something odd or at least under-explained about a young transgender German Jewish character (played byHari Nef) who starts out with the name Gershon, a name so ideologically meaningful that it was what Gerhard Scholem chose for himself when he moved to Palestine as a Zionist, and who chooses after transition to be called Gitl, a name that unlike, say, Grete or Gertrud, would have smacked as quite old-fashioned, even great-grandmotherly, among the cabarets and artists of 1930s Berlin.
Such hiccups can be chalked up to the challenge of season-to-season television continuity: a great aunt named Gitl was mentioned early in the first season as having probably died in the Holocaust, probably before Hirschfeld had entered anyone’s thinking. Plus, getting a historical costume drama just right can be pricey, and one imagines that Amazon might not yet be willing to fork over Mad Men– or Game of Thrones-level dollars to Soloway, as much as she and her show deserve them.
Still, the flashbacks build to a satisfying climax, and the show’s ambition in making this leap through time is laudable and consistent with the risks Soloway has been taking ever since the pilot. In making explicit a connection between Maura Pfefferman and the first modern advocate of rights for transgender and gay people, the show gives us one crucial answer as to why it makes sense that it’s a Jewish family at the center of this story about a transgender woman. Jews were crucial, ardent supporters of sexual science and minority rights throughout the 20th century, for many reasons; often because, being Jewish, they understood that persecution or prejudicial treatment of any minority is actually a threat against all of us.
That’s a legacy that Jews should celebrate, and endeavor to live up to, right now. It’s a way that our particular experiences, as Jews, can matter universally. And in its power to remind us of that, Transparent is not just “Jewy,” and not just an admirable fiction about the complexity of contemporary sexuality and gender, but maybe the most important work of Jewish culture of the century so far.