Brow Beat

Transparent Is the Most Profoundly Jewish Show in TV History

Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) in the Holy Land.


Has there ever been a TV series as Jewish as Transparent? Sure, other shows are about Jews, and other shows have the occasional yiddishisms thrown in, or, in Curb Your Enthusiasm’s case, build an entire subplot around getting tickets to Yom Kippur services. But Transparent, which returned last Friday for a masterful fourth season, feels like the Jewiest of them all. It feels as Jewish as a Seder Plate, or Jon Stewart’s original last name. This is, after all, a show whose first season ended with Maura, the trans matriarch of the Pfefferman clan played by Jeffrey Tambor, resignedly muttering “Oy gevalt” in an episode titled “Why Do We Cover the Mirrors?”

Oy gevalt, an expression of exasperation without peer, could serve as Transparent’s alternate title. The Pfeffermans are exasperating characters running up against exasperating circumstances, often of their own making. Now, after a third season in which the family scattered to the wind and the show’s focus grew too diffuse to manage, Season 4 sees the clan coming back together, having shed side characters like Rabbi Raquel, Colton, Shea, Buzzy, and Leslie. Ali is single, Maura is dating, Len and Sarah are together, Shelly is moving in with Josh, and all will soon embark on a trip to Israel on a voyage of connection to their roots and self-discovery. It’s the most Jewish-American of stories, and, because this is Transparent, you can be sure the show’s auteur Jill Soloway and their crack team of writers will render it in the most Jewish of ways.

Transparent, in other words, isn’t just Jewish because of its subject matter, or its characters, or its setting. It’s Jewish in its sensibility and concerns, even as both can prove hard to define. One defining characteristic, clearly present in Transparent, is a sense of too-muchness. In an incisive examination of the Jewish sensibility lacking from Jerry Seinfeld’s recent stand-up, Tablet’s Mark Oppenheimer writes that “Jewishness—as a sensibility, as a way of seeing the world—is about a surfeit of feeling … [T]he ‘Jew,’ both in his own imagination and in the view of anti-Semites, is that creature from whom feeling bubbles forth.”

It’s this bubbling-forth that’s most immediately visible in Jewish work. You can see it in the antic rhythms of Annie Hall, or the writing of Michael Chabon and Jami Attenberg. It’s how we know that a character named George Costanza is actually Jewish. The late, great Leonard Michaels both captured and performed this sense of overflowing feeling in his essay My Yiddish. “The [Jewish] sentence could have been written by anyone who knows English, but it probably would not have been written by a well-bred Gentile,” he writes. “It has too much drama, and might even be disturbing … the sentence obliges you to abide in its staggered flow, as if what I mean were inextricable from my feelings and required a lyrical note. There is a kind of enforced intimacy with the reader. A Jewish kind, I suppose.”

Enforced intimacy is a Pfefferman family hobby, and it’s deeply embedded in Transparent’s form. The Pfeffermans scream, cry, and argue about everything. Their amps don’t just go to 11; they stay there. Scenes of the family together often begin as a jangle of overlapping, Altmanesque dialogue before the show gets down to business with handheld closeups that highlight every squeezed nerve. The Pfeffermans feel everything too intensely—everything, that is, except empathy for other people—and this intensity regularly seduces and destroys the unwitting bystanders and lovers who fall into their orbit. The show inverts and complicates a long-standing Hollywood archetype: the Jew—often a therapist—who saves WASPs by teaching them how to feel. For the Pfeffermans, maybe not so much with the feeling all the time wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Transparent is also unafraid of that other hallmark of American Jewry: self-loathing. In its second season, the show both explored and embodied the question of whether or not what’s wrong with Jews is that we’re, well, Jews. Ali reads up on epigenetics as the show wonders whether the Holocaust has fundamentally changed Jews on a chromosomal level. Characters wonder aloud if they/we are monsters. Rabbi Raquel wants to “protect” Colton, the show’s lone explicitly Christian character, from all the urbane (Jewish!) chaos of her life. As Josh faces a profound crisis, a situation with no clear right or wrong answer, all audio falls away, save for two children singing one line of a Christian hymn over and over again. What Oppenheimer calls “the roil of Jewish disorder and uncertainty” has come up against the clarity of Christian doctrine, and it has no answers. In the third season, at another nadir of self-hatred, Josh gets baptized. In the fourth, when offered the opportunity to shoot a gun, he responds, “Self-loathing is my weapon of choice.”

But in wondering about the show’s Jewish sensibility, in what its Jewishness might mean, I also think of a conversation I had with my observant, and trans, younger brother about five years ago. Like most Jews I know, I am a bad Jew—I am defined, on some level, by the badness of my Jewishness— but my younger brother is a very good Jew, and so, one day, I asked him about his observance, about what Rabbi Raquel would call his religious practice. My brother explained the idea of khumra, or observing a version of Jewish law that is stricter than the law’s minimum requirements. It comes from Deuteronomy: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if any one fall from it.” The idea is that you take an extra precaution to avoid even the appearance that you might be guilty. Thus, khumra, a fence around the law itself, so that you do not trespass upon it.

One way to understand it, then: Jewishness is the border, and the crossing of the border. It is maintaining strict cultural, dietary, legal, and religious boundaries, and then making them stricter yet again, while crossing the boundaries of nations as a transnational people. It is also the incredibly high price paid for maintaining your identity and culture while making this border crossing. But what happens to Jewishness as that first set of boundaries dissolves, as we become secular, as we forget the law, and God—as I have? Without boundaries, what do we have? And how do we know it’s ours?

Transparent, like Josh, has few answers, because another way that the show is Jewish is that it explores its themes dialectically. The contrast between the utopian possibilities of borderlessness and the anxiety, pain, and feeling of loss that accompanies that state is in many ways Transparent’s true subject. Using the inciting incident of Maura’s coming out, Transparent has explored a series of border fuzzings and demolitions. First, of course, is Maura’s realization and revelation of who she is. Her daughter Ali begins dating women. Her other daughter Sarah leaves her husband Len for her college girlfriend, then explores several different ideas of her sexuality before winding up back with Len in an arrangement neither can really describe or seem to fully understand. Maura’s ex-wife Shelly goes from anxious nudge to stage performer and, in the new season, adopts the alter ego of a middle-aged Italian man named Mario. Transparent also disrupts the boundaries between time, the self, the real, and the fantastical. In one episode, the physical nature of a house completely changes when Ali’s illusions about its occupant shatter. Actors play their ancestors in flashbacks, and those ancestors, in a move straight out of Caryl Churchill, sometimes show up in the present day.

Yet the crossing of borders isn’t the key to happiness on the show. Josh, for reasons best left unspoiled, realizes how badly he needs clear boundaries in his life and behavior. Sarah longs for the strict boundaries of both Jewish ritual practice and S&M, and rebels against them. One character is so traumatized by Sarah’s routine transgressions against her boundaries that she moves to Colorado. Especially in its fourth season, Transparent is a show that can take seriously both Dr. Steve’s assertion that, “boundaries are everything, boundaries are how people tell other people what they need,” and Ali’s assertion that the false binaries with which we understand the world and each other are destroying us.

Is it any wonder then that this most Jewish of shows, with its obsession with boundaries and borders, would do its own version of making aliyah and send the Pfeffermans to Israel? Transparent’s treatment of Israel is just as ambivalent, contradictory, anxious, and overflowing as its explorations of anything else. Josh tries Israeli machismo on for size and it ends poorly. Ali, who is in many ways this season’s protagonist, goes through a very Jewish arc of self-discovery in the Holy Land, except she does it in Ramallah hanging out with Palestinian activists, rather than exploring holy sites. Maura discovers a hidden history nearly destroyed by the Holocaust, but through a source that calls into question whether the ability to start over again in a new country is necessarily good.

In one of the truest—and Jewest—scenes on the show, the Pfeffermans argue about the occupation while on a bus tour. Too close to one another, too thrilled by argument to stay still, and their voices grow louder. The argument shifts to whether they should even be arguing about the occupation at all, and it gradually becomes clear that none of them really knows much about the subject at all. As a Jew who is not a Zionist, I recognized every beat of this argument. I’ve had it dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times. Like all the arguments in Transparent, it remains deliciously unresolved, a question waiting to be answered with another question. What could be more Jewish than that?