“Transparent”: A Guide for the Perplexed

April 10, 2016   •   By Jonathan Freedman

1: Jewiness

“The Jewiest show ever,” proclaimed Forward in response to Amazon Studio’s available-only-online series Transparent. Recent essays from Jewish scholars like Josh Lambert, Alisa Solomon, and Jeffrey Shoulson seem to support the point — and so do the abundance of conversations I’ve had with friends, acquaintances, and loved ones. Jews — queer and straight, firmly cis or trans or trans-friendly — have taken to Transparent with undisguised fervor.

But what does it mean, exactly, for a TV show to be “Jewy”? Answering this question, at least in regard to Transparent’s apparent but nevertheless mysterious Jewiness, creates a need for what the greatest of all Jewish theologians, Maimonides, would call a guide for the perplexed. For truly, the show raises more questions than answers. What, to start, does the portrait of Jewishness have to do with the portrait of sexual transitioning? — and vice versa? Does the show indulge dangerous Jewish stereotypes in its unattractive portrait of the Pfefferman family — their narcissism, their concern with money? When it wrangles Jewish history — interpolating scenes from Weimar Germany in Season 2, for example — does it offer meaningful contextualization, or simply wander pretentiously into the minefield of the past? And the show’s plot points bedevil viewers of all backgrounds. One can’t help but admire Rabbi Raquel, the sole voice of normality and common sense in the mixed-up Pfefferman clan; but is she right to so insistently reject Colton, the gentile son of her lover Josh? Who is right in the dialogue between the founders of the Idyllwild Wimmin’s Music Festival and Maura: should there be a safe space for womyn-born-of-womyn only, or should that space be open to trans- and other-gendered folk? And on and on into the night, in long discussions that never end but succeed only in raising yet more questions in their wake.

Which is of course the point. The method as well as the matter of Transparent is to raise questions for its characters, baffling them (and us) as they make their way on the uncertain terrain of gender, sexuality, identity, and, ultimately — Soloway is aiming at very big game here, especially at the end of Season 2 — historical memory, trauma, the mysteries of birth and death.

And it’s here, it seems to me, that Transparent stands at its most Jewy: in its insistence on perplexities, through which we might desire a guide. What could be more reflective of the situation of Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness at the current moment where everything — biology, culture, social norms, ritual meanings — is shifting daily? We, like all post-post-modern subjects, need guidance; but where are we to find it, and what are we to do with it when we do?

If what follows could be taken as a guide to those perplexed by Transparent and by its take on Jewishness, it should be seen as an ambivalent one at best. It offers none but the most perfunctory of resolutions to the conundrums it poses: a guide to the perplexities facing those perplexed by the always-already-perplexed, as it were. I was asked to write this piece in a crowded cocktail party by my gentile, Iowa-born-and-bred friend, LARB editor Sarah Mesle; it’s addressed to readers like Sarah, who live amongst Jews and Jewishness but are a bit uncertain about the niceties of our ways of being in the world, religious practices or lack thereof, and general cultural dispositions even though they are intimately acquainted with our specific neurotic patterns. Iowa born and bred myself, a professor at a great Midwestern university, and hence alien to the hip LA world in which the Pfeffermans and Soloway and for that matter Sarah all move, I also offer it to those who, like me, are Jewish in some ill-defined way and to whom the Pfeffermans, similarly (dis-)engaged, are perhaps all too familiar. More generally, I offer it in the spirit of the show itself, which attempts in its engagement with Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness to find a language to think about weighty issues that rarely make their way onto the screen, large, medium, or small. We are all perplexed; we all need a guide; we are all, in the end, Pfeffermans.


2: Fragments

I am by trade a literature professor, so forgive me if I begin with a question of form, of the show’s units of attention. They are, in a word, small. Jill Soloway has said that she conceived of Transparent as a five-hour-long film broken into half-hour segments, but to that it must be added that each episode is divided into multiple segments, each two or three minutes in length at most. This habit of interlacing narratives is common to TV dramas to be sure; but if Transparent equals Game of Thrones in its embrace of multiple plotlines, it exceeds it in the shortness of its interwoven chunks. Yet even with the brevity of its scenes, Transparent’s narrative units cling tightly together: material in the second season rings ironically with matters from the first, moments from Season 1 anticipate ones in Season 2, and similar connections bind individual episodes and more from individual sub-units. The show is thus made up of fragments that enact the fragmentary nature of the world in which the Pfeffermans live, as they struggle to piece together their existence in contemporary LA; but these fragments suggest larger arcs of meaning even as they make it only dimly possible for us to see them. It is as if Soloway turned to her Ouija board and asked for plot guidance from Walter Benjamin.

That said, each season takes on a distinctive form about three-quarters of the way through, when each season’s themes and variations cluster, as Shoulson has suggested, around a religious ritual. In the first season, this is the bat mitzvah that Mort and Shelly Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor and Judith Light) let their 13-year-old daughter, Ali (the younger Ali is played by model/actress Emily Robinson), cancel. In the second, the ritual is a Yom Kippur service led by Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) followed by an equally ceremonial event in Jewish culture, the break-the-fast feast, held at Ali’s trendy Echo Parkish apartment, and co-hosted by Ali’s soon-to-dump-her girlfriend, Syd (Carrie Brownstein, of Sleater-Kinney fame).

Each of these rituals ends in disaster. In Season 1, although Ali shows that she can recite her Torah portion perfectly and with flourish, she’s abandoned by her parents and indeed every member of her family, who scoot off on their own business while she is left to fend for herself. And the huge fight between Ali (the grown-up version is played by Gaby Hoffmann) and her father that serves as Season 1’s climax comes when she blames him for his failure to make her go through with the bat mitzvah and he holds her accountable for not growing up — the act that that the ceremony accomplishes and marks. (Both are right.) Dysfunction also marks the Yom Kippur ceremonies, the first destroyed as Josh (Jay DuPlass), upset that Rabbi Raquel has left him, walks out in the midst of the holiest moment of communal assertion of transgression and responsibility, the slicha prayer — a prayer she is leading — the second when the break-the-fast turns into an equal disaster as Josh is forced to admit to his family that not only is he not marrying Raquel but also that they have suffered a miscarriage — occasioning not sympathy but rather keening from his mother, who claims beyond all logic that she is responsible for the miscarriage. In different ways, then, each season’s disaster hinges on intergenerational tension about the ways and means of moving into the future — generational tension about the process of generation, in other words.

Importantly, these family dramas are situated within rituals that, despite or perhaps because of their failures, organize the seasons in which they occur with specific, if often ironic, allusions to Jewish texts and traditions. Let’s consider them in turn.


3: Journeys

Crucial for all of Season 1, for example, are the words of Ali’s Torah portion, named by its fifth and six words “lech lecha.” Those words mark the beginning of verses in Genesis in which God tells Abraham, who at this point in the story is still a prosperous fellow named Abram, to leave his home and wander into the desert to ultimately find a Promised Land. “Lech lecha,” the Deity says: which translates literally as the imperative “go” followed by a near homonym meaning “for you.” It’s usually translated as something like “go forth” (these are the words used by the great translator Robert Alter); but the original is more complicated than that. The second word, lecha, “for you,” torques the imperative lech, “go,” and directs it straight to Abram: this is what you must do, this word is meant for you.

As the great critic Erich Auerbach showed us long ago in his masterpiece Mimesis, the Bible often reduces scale to emphasize the onerous quality of choice. As in the scene where God demands that Abraham (the transformed Abram) sacrifices Isaac, there are only two sentient figures here, Abram and the Deity, and they confront each other on an existential plane without any of the social texture, support, or moral injunctions that might qualify the focus or reduce the onerous force of the choice with which God confronts the man. Indeed, the existential quality of this moment goes even deeper. Not only must Abram do something different, but also in that quest, he must become someone different — which indeed he does as he accepts the mantle of prophet and journeys on his way to becoming Abraham. In my own personal midrash I have always thought the best paraphrase of this line might well be the famous concluding words of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: “You must change your life.”

Both of the implied injunctions — you must go! you must change! — gloss the entire first season, in which wandering actual and metaphorical is ubiquitous and in which identity-transformation is at the center of concerns. These come together with brilliant force in the episode of Ali’s bat mitzvah, which takes place in flashback. Every character here, even Ali, undertakes a physical journey. Mort leaves for his transvestite camp; Shelly goes to stay with a friend; Josh drives away with former babysitter Rita (Brett Paesel), putting his hand on hers as the car accelerates; her sister Sarah (Amy Landecker) splits for a demonstration and then on the bus moves away from a sleeping boy to a close-cropped lesbian woman. Ali may be left alone in the Pfefferman abode, but not for long; she gets driven by the caterer’s assistant to the beach, where she meets a boy in his late teens who kisses her and drives her around until the next morning.

And each also changes their life. The most obvious change is Mort’s: it is at the camp for transvestite men that he first learns that beyond transvestism lies a fuller trans identity. And he proceeds to dance a steamy tango that leads to a liaison with the wife of a fellow camper — just to add to the complexity here, the same actress plays Mort’s German-Jewish grandmother in Season 2. Josh is off to have an affair with an older woman, a rite of teenage passage if ever there was one. (Although earlier — you see what I mean about episodes commenting on each other — we have seen the adult Josh leaving a romantic encounter to visit the now-middle-aged Rita and putting his head in her lap, as if with her he still is the child he once was.) Sarah is on her path to the ambiguous sexuality, blending queer and straight forms, that works itself out for the rest of the show: for example, when, quite literally in a closet, she proposes to go down on her estranged husband despite her torrid romance with the tasteless interior decorator Tammy (Melora Hardin), and then, when he rebuffs her, announces her plans to marry Tammy. And Ali is sadly, movingly poised on the edge of sexual maturity even as a 13-year-old, picking up and flirting with a man on the beach, and ultimately kissing him as her adult self looks on and then, in one of the reality-challenging moments in the show, kissing him in her pre-teen self’s place, thus enacting the same process as her sibs and father. It is at this moment that her adult sexuality — in Season 1, her yen for sex with strangers to mask her deep sense of abandonment — takes shape.

Lech lecha: you must wander, you must change. Both of these imperatives are deeply — one might even say constitutively — Jewish. The first manifests itself in the historical experience of Jews as an exilic or diasporic people. To be a bit tendentious about it, the Promised Land has long served as much as a promise as a land; at the time of Christ, the heyday of the Second Temple, for example, more Jews lived in the Nile Delta than in Biblical Palestine; and the phrase at the end of the Passover ceremony, “Next year in Jerusalem,” has resonated and continues to resonate as much in Minsk or Berlin or Los Angeles as it does in, well, Jerusalem. The diasporic heritage has been key to the cultural and economic success of Jews qua model minority — as traders or middlemen, as makers and remakers of the cultures of the lands into which we have passed: without us, could Donald Trump even have conceived of the word “schlonged”? But it also means that we diasporic Jews are really home nowhere, as reflected in the rootlessness of the Pfefferman family, where the family mansion passes from Mort to his daughter so that Tammy can redecorate it out of existence.

And this rootlessness in turn opens Jews up not only to the charge of being a people without a home, but also to historical catastrophes in the nations in which we find ourselves — most notoriously the Holocaust, which irreverently but not un-ominously figures in the Pfefferman family banter as early as the pilot episode, when Josh bestows Mort’s many girlfriends with names like “Marcy Kristallnacht” and “Belsen-berger,” or when in Episode 8 it’s revealed that Mort is a scholar specializing in the case of Ethel Rosenberg, whose execution is generally conceived of as an expression of American anti-Semitism.

In addition to diaspora and its discontents, the imperative to change oneself that is also implied by lech lecha is equally constitutive of Jewish experience at large, and in ways that bear specifically on Transparent’s drama of gendered and sexed transmigration. As a wandering people, Jews have of course had to change as they moved from country to country, ghetto to citizenship, religious to assimilated, ghetto Jew to sabra, frum to modern, which raises and practically identifies the Jew with the perpetual questioning of identity that is a hallmark of modernity.

But consequently, Jews have faced the charge of being identityless. One of the classic anti-Semitic tropes is that of the Jewish shape-shifter taking on different guises as he or she enters into a given society — this is one of the many inhuman qualities ascribed by 19th-century anti-Semites to Jews, giving Tammy’s denunciation of the Pfefferman family as monsters in a drunken poolside tirade added bite.

Further, and of direct relevance to Transparent, is the way that specific quality of Jewish metamorphosis is worked out in the plane of biological sex. Jewish men in the Middle Ages were often seen as men/women capable of menstruation, a curse which descended upon them, or so the story went, in punishment for their betrayal of Christ. Sander Gilman has cleverly suggested that there might be some biological basis for this belief, that Ashkenazi Jews in Russia might have been infected with a parasite that caused blood to flow in their urine. Perhaps; but by the 19th century, this was irrelevant, since the understanding of the male Jew as a woman — as a proto-transsexual — had radiated throughout culture. A somewhat unhinged but brilliant converted Jew, cultural critic Otto Weininger, spoke of the male Jew’s essentially female nature in 1901. In 1922, James Joyce’s Jewish half-protagonist in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, is called “a finished example of the new womanly man.” Radiating out from such figures were identifications of Jewish men as women by medical professionals, chiefly in the cutting-edge medical research in 1920s and 1930s Germany. Gilman quotes a number of these researchers as seeking to establish, scientifically, what superstition and fiction suggested: “The Jewish physician Heinrich Singer commented that ‘in general it is clear in examining the body of the Jew, that the Jew most approaches the body type of the female.’ Hans Gross, the famed non-Jewish criminologist from Prague […] commented about the ‘little, feminine hand of the Jew.’” Well before German-Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld ratified for the first time the existence of transsexuality and provided a safe space for same — events pivotal to the second season of Transparent — the shape-shifting Jew was thus understood to be a sex-bending Jew.

In part, this helps resolve the sense that many viewers have of the excrescential nature of the show’s flashbacks: they suggest that the show’s representation of Mort/Maura’s transitioning and its concern with Jewishness are one and the same. But lech lecha is not only experienced in Mort’s metamorphosis into Maura; it is implicit in the romantic wanderings of all the Pfefferman children, who move sexually across boundaries of age, gender, and race in myriad ways, all of which the show registers as queer. Their transformations are less startling than Mort’s into Maura but no less indicative of the imperative to remake one’s life, to find an anchor in a tempestuous world of ceaseless transformation via a new sexual preference, a new partner, a new life. Much of what critics properly see as the Pfefferman family’s narcissism might also be read as their attempt to find in relationships what they can’t find anywhere else, consequences be damned — for the people who are unfortunate enough to love them. No wonder Tammy sees them as monstrous; and she is just one of many people whom they leave in the wake of their journeys toward an ill-defined wholeness and definitive sense of identity in the everything’s-up-for-grabs world of contemporary LA.


4: Atonement

Whether the Pfeffermans are monsters or not, then, they have much to atone, and Season 2 devotes most of itself to their attempts and failures to do so. In the final episode of Season 1, Raquel has learned from a jealous and backstabbing Ali about Josh’s bad relationship habits, and learned moreover along with him that he has fathered a son with his own babysitter. Nevertheless, she returns to him and the relationship by the beginning of Season 2, only to be betrayed by Josh as he can’t keep from telling the news of her pregnancy to Ali, who promptly blabs it to Shelly, who then goes into full Jewish-mother kvelling behavior to Raquel’s intense discomfort, understandable for any woman at such an early stage of pregnancy. The episode ends with Josh lashing out at Raquel, telling her that “I fucked up, but I don’t want you to sit around collecting wrongs so you can prove to yourself that this relationship is wrong or that you’re not lovable.” There is in other words the acknowledgment of transgression but neither self-recognition nor atonement — just in the end pure LA psychobabble.

Nor is there any real recognition or atonement in the aftermath of any of Josh’s subsequent relationship errors. In one of the most awkward and awful scenes I have ever encountered on big or small screen, Raquel proposes to him, rather than the other way around, and he responds with silence accompanied by a facial expression that looks as if he has just ingested castor oil. The same face and silent response follow when his son, Colton, whom he has invited to live with him, is poised to return home to his foster parents and pathetically asks his biological father if he wants him to stay. No wonder when Josh tells Raquel that he’s not ready to try to have another child, then goes off to schmooze with industry pals, she leaves and he remains clueless as to why — the bed carefully made, an old ring, a family heirloom that Josh has given her in lieu of the ring he can’t bring himself to buy, neatly placed on top of it. (Just to be clear: Josh is not wrong to want a time-out with respect to parenting; his error lies in refusing to listen to Raquel’s sadness at her loss or her fears about her biological clock.)

The pattern of committing transgression, even acknowledging it, but failing at atonement is in the DNA of the Pfefferman family. We see it too with Sarah. After she dumps Tammy unceremoniously at the altar, she starts to fantasize about being punished, then puts fantasy into action when she encounters at the Idyllwild Wimmin’s festival a professional sadist and then seeks her out for private S&M sessions. When she’s asked if she would enjoy same, her simple reply is “woof!” — sexy, to be sure, but not exactly a step forward on the evolutionary scale. True, she tries the route of teshuvah — the confession of one’s sins and the attempt to right them that is undertaken during the days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. She apologizes to Tammy and buys for her ex-husband’s new girlfriend an expensive set of makeup, which she had ruined when curiously rifling through her things. While one of these gestures is acknowledged — her ex is in pain because the girlfriend has left him — and one isn’t — Tammy will never forgive her, which may be just as well — the fact that Sarah offers them as well as performing ritualized self-punishment via purchased S&M sex suggests that she may be on the path toward some kind of wholeness; when her ex tells her that his girlfriend left him because she thought he was boring, she replies — probably lying, given the alacrity with which she herself left him — that he was no such thing. The suggestion of Sarah’s moral development is also heightened when, in the final episode, seeking religious counsel, she goes to visit Rabbi Raquel, suggesting that a mutual process of acknowledgment and forgiveness between them might well take place. (We’ll see in Season 3.) But it’s important to note that the quest for forgiveness comes at the price of another trangression, since Sarah has promised Josh not to go to see Raquel; she doesn’t just break her word to him but repeats his own violation of the similar promise he made to Raquel.

That leaves us with Mort/Maura. One of the great things about the show is that, although it is clearly trans-friendly, to put it mildly, it does not idealize its central figure. In Season 1, it’s clear that both as Mort and Maura, “Moppa” is utterly inattentive to his children’s needs, playing them off against each other by making promises of money or property and swearing them variously to secrecy; at the end of Season 1 she viciously attacks her own daughter, literally throwing a denunciation of her inadequacies as well as money in her face. And this critique goes to the core of Maura’s slippery gendered and sexed identity. We see her in flashbacks abandoning the kids in the car to rifle though porn, and it is to explore Maura’s sexual fantasies that Ali is abandoned on her not-bat mitzvah day. In Season 2, this critique is extended retroactively as Maura encounters people who have known her as Mort and found him to be unpleasantly authoritarian; most notable among these is the feminist poet Leslie Mackinaw (Cherry Jones), who reminds Maura that, as Mort, he blocked her from joining the editorial board of a journal he edited. Mort’s peremptoriness and lack of compassion continue to structure Maura’s relationship with the transwomen she boards with, and whose emotional and life experience she has no comprehension of. When he’s told off, the stricken look on Maura’s face — Tambor’s performance is superlative throughout, and never better than at this moment — suggests the beginning of realization of her insensitivity, and we may see some further development along these lines in what is to come. But for now Maura remains in the guilty-but-not-atoning status that defines the Pfeffermans.

The last Pfefferman to deal with here is Ali — Shelly remains fascinating, but not fully explored — and her trajectory is different than the rest of her family’s, in the end leading to a place that moves through and beyond the imperatives of both lech lecha and of atonement, and indeed through and beyond Jewishness itself. On the one hand, Ali moves from voracious and not un-predatory heterosexuality into a queer relationship that she enters with all the sensitivity and care of a steamroller. The object of her attentions is her best friend Syd, who had made her feelings clear (after sleeping with Josh in early, pre-Raquel episodes), who becomes her first female lover and partner, and to whom Ali is, in what seems a matter of moments, eager to propose an open relationship. (Syd, no fool, says no and hightails it out of Ali’s life.)

But in Ali’s unfolding relationship with Leslie Mackinaw (her last name perhaps a tribute to Northern Michigan, where the original Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival took place for many years), we can see a new Ali taking shape, one in awe of Leslie but not slavishly devoted to her, or so we can only hope. Leslie after all gives her the single worst piece of advice I’ve ever heard delivered to a candidate for a PhD program — just write about yourself — which Ali properly ignores to write instead about the tangled history of Jewishness. To be sure, although there’s lots of wandering and transformation, there’s very little self-awareness evident in Ali, much less introspection and repentance. But as her essay suggests, what Ali does get, that none of the rest of the clan do, is a sense of history, which becomes the third, final, and to me the most satisfying way in which Transparent engages with Jewishness.


5: History

Chosen people, people of the book, wanderers, inheritors of the land, feh! What really marks Jews in the United States and places them in a different category from other peoples in our history-denying land is the way we have been defined by a deep and continuous past. Three thousand years is a long time to be a people; and in a country just turning 250 or so, it seems even longer. To be sure, there are a lot of distortions, false pleading, ideological positioning, and outright idealization going on in the historical construction of Jewishness as a people with history, as a people who embody the very importance of history as such (who needs that?), but it still feels crucial to remind people of the multifarious possibilities embedded in the Jewish past. This I feel most strongly when I teach my Jewish studies undergraduates, who arrive with partial knowledge to say the least and who leave, I hope, with a greater sense of the heterogeneity of the career of the “Jewish” over space and time. Who can blame them for their naïveté? Even or especially the ones who are introduced to the Jewish experience in suburban synagogues and JCCs, which by and large promote a very partial view of Jewishness, and who derive their other knowledge of what can be summarized as the sum of three movies: the flight from Egypt (The Prince of Egypt), the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), and the creation of the State of Israel (Exodus).

Nooks and crannies of Jewish experience remain unknown to them, and indeed to many Jews and gentiles. One of the most prominent is the one that I have begun to suggest above, the link between Jews and Jewishness and sexual Otherness, a link suggested over time in a number of contexts but consummated most fully in Weimar Germany, where Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, after a long-time engagement with homosexual rights, began to argue for the existence of a distinct category, that of transsexuality, namely people who conceive of themselves as other to their own given biological sex.

In Transparent, Hirschfeld’s Institute is accurately shown as a part of a panoply of gay- and trans-friendly celebrations, balls, and entertainments that marked Berlin in the Weimar Republic — a particularly tolerant place, as Robert Beachy shows in his splendid recent book Gay Berlin (Vintage, 2014). It is also shown as a haven for transsexuals, as again it was: indeed the first gender-reassignment surgeries were performed under the aegis of the Institute. The Institute Hirschfeld and his fellow sex researchers founded became a prime example of putative degeneracy for the Nazis, so much so that the Institute was attacked and its papers burnt in 1933; Hirschfeld went into exile that year, and spent the rest of his life in France. But it was not only his advocacy of sexual rights that made Hirschfeld anathema to the Nazis. His Jewish origins confirmed the link they were seeking to establish between Jewishness and sexual otherness. No wonder that along with his papers and books, the Nazis tossed a bust of Hirschfeld into a bonfire on May 6, 1933, the day when the Institute was sacked, and the day, in Transparent, when Gittel, the transitioned aunt of Mort/Maura, is lynched.

Hirschfeld’s Institute brings together the show’s transsexual and Jewish plots with a neat symmetry — perhaps too neat, especially when his Jewishness is added to the mix. For this disdainer of closets and explorer of multiple identities was willfully inattentive to his own Jewishness, preferring like so many German Jews to think of himself as the latter rather than the former. Here are comments he is supposed to have made to his friend Heins Blüher:

I must protest now being called a Jew and on these grounds being ostracized and persecuted by these Nazi swine. I am a German, a German citizen, just as good as any Hindenberg or Ludendorff, like Bismarck or out old Kaiser! An honest German, born in Germany to German parents. And so it was with me, as with just about any newborn child all over Europe; they are forced into religious straightjackets, are baptized or circumcised and meant to be raised in the faith of their parents. Because my parents adhered to the Mosaic faith, I have been marked with the Mosaic stigma. (Quoted in Ralf Dose, Magnus Hirchfeld: Deutscher Juden Weltburger (mistranslated into English as Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement, 36-37)

Gittel makes the same error, fatally. When mother Yetta urges her to leave with a passport bearing his masculine name Gershon, she refuses; Yetta tells her, essentially, who cares what you call yourself when you get to America? Get out while you can! (Or — a modification of the double imperative of lech lecha: you must wander, you can change yourself later.) She refuses to leave, and the decision to stay proves fatal for Gittel but not for Hirschfeld (who, contrary to the show, was out of the country on the disastrous day in question). Yetta is right: to flee for your life — to diasporize, to self-exile, to be a Jew, already — is the wisest course of conduct for a Gittel who, like Hirschfeld, was oblivious to the full extent of the Nazi threat until it was too late.

It’s this awareness, I think, that we have to bring to the most controversial moments in the series, the intercutting between the Nazi looting of the Institute and Ali, walking in the Idyllwild woods, searching for her “Moppa” after he has left a circle of women — the founding mothers — in the Idyllwild camp. Alone in the forest, her face spangled from the ritual celebrations, Ali imagines herself wearing “Jew shoes” (Soloway goes way back in the historical record: Jewish women in 12th-century Baghdad were ordered to wear shoes with bells on them to announce their presence) then views — as if in a vision — the destruction of the Institute and the carrying-off of Gittel by the Nazis. Indeed, she sees herself standing next to and almost touching the young version of her grandmother Rose, crying in horror as Gittel is carted away. The two scenes merge in other ways as well: the Indigo Girls’s music from the Idyllwild festival accompanies the Nazi rampage, for example, suggesting a hinge between the goings on at the firesides at the camp and the Institute.

But what is the point of bringing these two together? Does the scene construct an equation between Nazis and femi-Nazis, as a feminist Jewish friend of mine said in explaining why she hated the episode? Is the rejection by the Idyllwild womyn’s leadership of Maura, not a womyn born of womyn, in any way equivalent to the lynching of Gittel? Of course, no.

But that’s not necessarily the lesson here; rather, the point is that history — the historical experience of trauma — shapes the ways that people perceive events, understand their world even when that world is no longer suffused with an immediate threat. (My father, a German refugee, has a toxic relation to police and other authorities that I never understood until I mused on his backstory.) Earlier on, Ali and Syd have been exploring research that suggests that trauma can be passed on from one generation to the next epigenetically — a fact which is, I think, confirmed in large measure by Ali’s treatment of Syd, as though Ali herself has received and is repeating the abusive patterns of her family. Ali perceives her experience through the lens of traumas that are not known to her, those Rose passed on to Mort and which Mort passed on to her, traumas that appear only as visions but which unfold to us, the spectators, as a way of explaining, contextualizing, understanding the Pfeffermans at large.

To concretize this point, Soloway constructs a symbolic correlative of it: the history of the traumatic past is conveyed by the ring that Gittel passes to Rose and which Yetta bakes in chocolate and then gives to Rose which then passes as an unknown heirloom to Josh who gives it as a trinket to Raquel who rejects it after which it passes to Ali who wears it to Rose’s bedside for whom it unlocks memories of her past. This is an emblem, and a beautiful one, for the ways in which historical experience is baked into the Pfeffermans without their knowing it, as a knowledge that they bear with them in every fiber of their being and which determines and indeed predetermines them.


6: Narratives Past and Present

If scripture — lech lecha — and Yom Kippur — ritual, cultural practice — fail, can history succeed in giving guidance to the perplexed and perplexing Pfefferman family? In some sense, the show is suggesting, it can’t. Perhaps that’s because it’s not even history — we learn especially in this episode that, as William Faulkner said (he was misquoted by Woody Allen, who should know), “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” But so far I have only treated the penultimate episode of the series; in Season 2’s final episode, Transparent suggests a number of different stances toward the past that might allow a different purchase upon it. Ali’s, as we have seen, is the path of vision and ultimately knowledge; she will, one hopes, despite the best efforts of her mentor who wants her to write about her own experience, not her Jewishness (as if she could excise the latter from the former), continue to learn about Gershon, about Hirschfeld, about the Jewish history fitted on her as tightly as the cramped shoes in which she walks in episode 9.

Josh, too, in this final episode, is granted a different response to the past than the one by which he has been bedeviled. In a beautiful and unexpected plot development, Shelly’s new boyfriend Buzz, whom we’ve seen as a combination shamash — congregation beadle — and shmendrick — clumsy oaf — turns out to be a mensch, a grown-up tempering power with wisdom. He saves a wounded duck, then saves Josh, whose increasingly maniacal, angry, and self-destructive behavior he diagnoses as the result of a blocked, unexpressed grief at the loss of his father: “It’s not politically correct to say you miss someone whose transitioned,” says Josh, to which Buzz replies: “This isn’t about correct. Joshua, this is about grieving.” That Josh breaks down in tears on Buzz’s chest suggests that he has found not only the key to his suffering but also the father he always lacked: Mort, after all, was absent to his children long before he transitioned. (Kudos to Soloway and the writers of this episode for including this plot development, by the way; the show here and elsewhere wonderfully avoids a self-congratulation that it might otherwise fall victim to.) It also suggests that her characters can find some peace not by moving forward blindly into the world, but by rethinking and reimagining the past. History oppresses, but it also consoles — when we can tell its stories differently.

There’s thus a path forward that also leads back for all the Pfeffermans — for Josh, perhaps back to Rabbi Raquel (though Soloway’s recent announcement that her next serial will star Kathryn Hahn, who plays Raquel, does not auger well); for Sarah, perhaps back to her husband or at least a stable person, female or male; for Ali, whom one can only hope will continue to go her own way in the academic world, back to learning more about Gershon, Gittel, and Weimar and away from the mentor who looms ahead with more bad advice. They all may, in other words, rewrite the narratives with which they have been endowed or in which they have been enmeshed not by seeking to make radical breaks with the past but by accepting it and trying to weave new stories out of its material.


7: Stories Ringing True

Or such is my Jewy take on the future of this Jewish family: as generations of post-Holocaust critics have suggested, mourning and storytelling are two ways of successfully dealing with the past, with trauma, and its way of shaping the present and the future. In this sense, Transparent is indeed the Jewiest show ever, and not just in matter but also in form: the further it moves forward in time, the more it needs to come into contact with what has gone before; the more it inscribes the effects of historical trauma defined by Nazism and ramified by anti-Semitism as well as the trans-phobia with which such prejudices were intimately connected, the more it comes into contact with the necessity of integrating them into one’s horizon and experience.

But there’s another turn that Transparent has to offer on narrative, one that is more uncanny and propulsive. One’s sense in the final episode is that the story itself, the tale of Yetta and Rose and the birth of Mort, is one that demands to be told, that Ali is merely its vehicle or pretext for its coming into the world. For the flashbacks in episode 10 are by and large independent of Ali, who has hitherto witnessed them in dreamlike visions in which she also often participates. But the next two take place independent of her. In one we see the boat bearing Rose and Yetta to America, where, to comfort her, Yetta hands Rose the chocolate containing the ring that Gittel had given Rose; in the other, Yetta and Rose meet her father, newly married to a gentile in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, whom the two women walk out on, spitting. The narrative then connects with Ali again in an almost supernatural way, by means of the ring: when Rose, aged, silent, bowed, sees it on Ali’s neck, fingers it, the last bits of the narrative come into place. We see Rose’s husband, Mort’s father, pacing in the waiting room, proclaiming with certainty that he will have a daughter; then Rose screaming as she pushes out the child who is to become first Mort, then Maura.

Both the means and the ends to this final exfoliation of the narrative are as significant as its enactment. Crucial here is the material object that ties together the generations, the ring. Rings play a role in Jewish lore no less than in the Teutonic mythology that gave rise to a few operas by a certain German anti-Semite and the work of an Oxford medievalist consumed by a fictional universe of hobbits, elves, and orcs. Indeed, the Jewish ring thing dates itself before its gentile equivalents, originating in tales of Solomon’s magical signet ring, the hexagonal pattern of which gives us the shape of the Star of David, the power of which is to evoke and master evil spirits — present in Transparent’s, perhaps, as the memories of sadness, loss, and catastrophe that transcend the generations and are encoded narratively, in memory, as much as they are epigenetically.

There are rings galore, too, in Yiddish secular literature. One of the first novels in Yiddish is Mendele’s (pen name for S.Y. Abramovich) The Magic Ring, a novel that proposes two possibilities for Jews, one following a magic ring forward, one backward. The Magic Ring is also the title of a wonderful children’s book of 1946, which was commonly shared in middle-class Jewish homes like mine or Soloway’s in the 1950s and 1960s (same name, different story). Like the gentile rings in contemporaneous mythologies, these rings are talismans of power, usually inscribed with a magic word that allows its user to transcend space and time. Here, the ring seems to have precisely that kind of talismanic power, but that power is in some sense the power of narrative itself. The ring (more or less like Tolkien’s, to syncretize matters) passes from owner to owner, from Josh to Raquel to Ali, in order to find its way back to its true owner; when it does, what it unlocks is the power of the stories that make its transition possible. It is what the late narratologist Tobin Siebers would call a “story-object” — an object that not only accretes stories around it but also elicits them.

The stories this ring elicits complicate and complete the narratives that have preceded its appearance. Intra-diagetically, within the narrative, Father Pfefferman’s sense that the child is destined to be female no matter what its biological sex turns out to be suggests that the whole transition thing is, as Yiddish puts it, “beshert,” or destined to become; that far from being monstrous or unnatural, Mort’s transition — or, the show implies, a better word might be translation — is the fulfillment of the terms of his father’s utterance. (We’re really close here to the essence of Jewish mysticism in the idea that words generate things rather than the other way around.) This turn toward the super- or extra-natural leads to the resonant last shot of the episode and the season, in which we see a panoply of women of different generations and dispositions — Rose, her (now) two daughters, Ali — facing the Pacific Ocean, backs to the camera and to us. What awaits them, but also what has brought them there, are the greatest mysteries of all: birth, death, love, loss, being itself. The future they face is as infinitely enigmatic, and as profoundly filled with possibility and regret, as the past that brought them there.


8: Speaking of the future …

With such a conclusion, where can Transparent go in its third season? The end is so formally and thematically perfect that one hesitates to draw any conclusions about where Soloway and her talented writers can take the show, much less the directions in which they will go. I must confess that I’m a little leery of what lies ahead. There are so many sharks out there waiting to be jumped; the temptations they have resisted — for hagiography, political certainty, sensationalism, or self-congratulation — are strong and who knows how much longer they can fight them off? That said, I trust the tale even when I’m (I hope) needlessly worried about the tellers; I rely on the history behind her-story, as it were. The Jewish context and sense of a motivating past that underlies and impels the whole series may well help keep it on course. Lech lecha and Yom Kippur may no longer speak to the conditions of the Pfeffermans — or to ours, as viewers; but the sense of a past which is powerfully pressing and a futurity which is as vast as the Pacific Ocean surely do, and it is this sense of expansiveness that Jewishness, conceived of as a resource that breathes and breeds history, brings to the series.

And where can I end my meditations? Only with further perplexities, I fear. After the foregoing, and with future directions in mind — there have been many surprises up to this point and doubtless more await — it’s impossible to offer a conclusory response to the show’s engagement with Jewishness. I conclude, then, not with an exegetical flourish, but with a Yiddish poem that came my way in the course of writing this essay. While searching sources and analogues for Gittel’s magical ring I was given by Saul Noam Zaritt the gift of this lyric, Solomon’s Ring, by the Yiddish writer who went by the nom de plume of Yehoash, Solomon Blumgarten. How beautiful it is to think that he wrote it in the Bronx, where, like many great Yiddish writers, he spent most of his life; how moving to think that the language and tropes of this lyric, like Gittel’s ring, were carried, an emblem of Jewish survival, across the sea.

“Solomons’s Ring”

Endless figures
Countless reincarnations
Seize and change —
Like a black cord
Like an evil snake
Slithering through the years —
Like a mute lament crying through the generations:

Never emptied, the goblet
Never summitted, the mountain,
Never fully constructed, the tower,
Never seen to the end, the dream.

— translation by Eitan Kensky and Saul Noam Zaritt


A few acknowledgments: I want to thank for aid and comfort Sarah Mesle, editor supreme; Sara Blair; Jeffrey Shoulson; Diana Clarke; Shelley Salamensky; Saul Noam Zaritt; and my wonderful students in AC245 (Jews and Other Others) here at the University of Michigan, all of whom contributed in ways large and small.


Jonathan Freedman is Professor of English at the University of Michigan.