Jeffrey Tambor in “Transparent.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

‘Transparent’ finds new conflicts on trip to Israel


Over the course of its four seasons, “Transparent” has been creating groundbreaking conversation about gender identity, telling the story of a family in which one parent is going through gender transition. It’s also become known as one of the “Jewiest” shows on TV, pushing deeper into issues of secular Jewish identity and introducing many to epigenetics, the idea that trauma — in many Jewish cases, Holocaust suffering — is hereditary, passed down from the generation that experienced it, to echo in future generations.

These conversations are complicated, and with the fourth season now available on Amazon Prime, “Transparent” adds another controversial topic: the Israel-Palestine conflict. (The following includes spoilers from Season Four.)

Throughout the series, the Pfeffermans have struggled with boundaries, definitions and fluidities; characters push against and dismantle binaries, rejecting constructs like “black/white” or “male/female” in favor of multiplicity and expanded perspectives. In Season One, Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) transitioned to become Maura, a decision that reshapes the family journey moving forward.In the new season, Maura is invited to speak at a conference in Israel and makes a discovery that further impacts the definition of family. The Pfefferman children — Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) — struggle with nonconforming identities and relationships.

The tour bus full of Pfeffermans shleps with it the traditional baggage of old and new American-Jewish perspectives on Israel: An older generation argues for Israel’s position as a safe home for Jews after pogroms and the Holocaust but is unable to see any nuance to the current conflict and is unwilling to criticize the Israeli government. The young see the black and white of suffering and inequality, whether it’s a stark imbalance of Western Wall plaza space for women or oppression of Palestinians.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian storyline, the Palestinian narrative gets the most visibility. In Ramallah, the youngest Pfefferman, Ali, hears stories from her activist friends and the Palestinians who live there, of Israelis blackmailing Palestinians and exploiting their vulnerabilities, such as sexual orientation, to recruit them as informants, and that some of them can’t visit Jerusalem without permits. She asks if checkpoints are “along the border” and is quickly corrected that “there is no actual internationally recognized border, just one big, ugly wall and hundreds of checkpoints all over the place.” It’s life on the ground for the Palestinians and their activist friends, without any larger context: There’s no acknowledgment of why the wall is there, and the one person who says, “Not every Israeli is here to get rid of Palestinians” is all but drowned out as others talk over her.

Responding to her family saying that Israel was created to be a safe place for Jews post-persecution, Ali says, “We do not need to make the Palestinians unsafe just so the Jews can be safe.” But there’s no discussion of the reason for the existence of the divider and the outcome, that it is believed to have increased security for Israel by severely curtailing suicide bombings (although violence continues, as this week’s shooting in the West Bank demonstrates).

Ali always has been the millennial searcher, looking for truth, equality, love and acceptance. Her sense of right and wrong is only partly innate, and ignited and amplified by the people she meets and loves. But it would have been even more interesting if she had to navigate conflicting narratives, each of which was making compelling — and passionate — points and presented by people with whom she shares a peer-level respect and an emotional connection.

These scenes paint an unbridgeable gap: The previous generation is living in the past, unable to step away from its narrative to see any negative outcome, and the younger generation is passionate about Palestinian rights as part of an overall quest for justice but divorced from the region’s history as context. Each perspective sees no other choice; each perspective has its valid points and its blindnesses, all forged in history and emotion, with no room for nuance or compassion.

In real life in the modern American-Jewish community, when it comes to “the conflict,” there are extreme positions that mirror the extremes in the Pfefferman clan. But those of us who don’t adhere to edges or subscribe to extremes are, perhaps, more silent because we’re seeing both sides but don’t have answers, and perhaps more disturbingly, don’t have any confidence that either side is willing to listen.

Throughout, the Pfeffermans’ visit to Israel is underscored by the songs of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” a soundtrack both geographically appropriate and subversive as a score for a Jewish family’s tour of the Holy Land. For example, take “Everything’s Alright.” Its lyrics — “Try not to get worried/try not to turn on to/problems that upset you, oh/don’t you know/everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine” — indicate a kind of wishful thinking. “Close your eyes/close your eyes/and relax/think of nothing tonight” may be a good, in-the-moment coping strategy for a fictional, rock ’n’ roll opera Jesus, but it doesn’t solve systemic problems, whether they are Pfefferman family conflicts or regional ones.

Much has been written about the unlikability and selfishness of these characters. “Transparent” is intentionally disruptive and seems built to make the characters, and viewers by extension, uncomfortable, making it a perfect tonal match for the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which self-interest is a necessary guiding principle and discomfort reigns as conversational default.

If there’s one thing we should be learning from the Pfeffermans, it is perhaps that pushing against social limits and rejecting binary definitions, even — or especially — in a conflict as emotional and deeply rooted as the one in the Middle East, reveals the space between extremes. It is there, not at one pole or another, that we can do our individual work in discovering identity and exercise our sense of nuance and compassion.

Dustin Hoffman says it’s a great era for television, the worst ever for film


While television has never been better, according to veteran actor and two-time Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman, film has never been worse.

The star of the iconic Mike Nichols 1960s film “The Graduate,” who felt he was miscast because the main character, Benjamin Braddock, seemed to him appropriate for a WASP rather than a Jewish actor, observes that Hollywood is too obsessed with their bottom lines and budgets. He noted that “The Graduate” was a labor of love which screenwriters spent three years developing and took 100 days of shooting in a rather simple set.

The typical time for shooting a movie nowadays is only 20 days, which may be partly attributable to advances in digital technology, but may also be because of dwindling budgets per film to ensure that a larger number of movies get churned out.

Hoffman admits that in Los Angeles he felt encouraged to downplay his Jewishness, although he adds his non observant family did not emphasize being Jewish in the first place. He says the first time he became conscious that he was Jewish, about ten, he was tempted to go to a deli, buy bagels and decorate the Chanukkah bush with them.

“There was insidious anti-semitism in Los Angeles,” Hoffman told JC.com, and he looked forward to moving to New York at the age of 21. “New York was a town that had not had a face lift. It had not had a nose job.”

Hoffman’s first wife, Anne Byrne, was a ballerina of Irish Catholic extraction, and his second wife, Lisa Gottsegen, with whom he has been married for 23 years, has emphasized carrying on their Jewish tradition. Hoffman notes that the children have had bar and bat mitzvahs and they celebrate the holidays. He traces his love of herring and vodka to his Russian and Romanian heritage and adds, “I have a strong reaction to any antisemitism.”

He recalls being confronted in an upscale, pastry cafe outside of Hamburg, after visiting Bergen Belsen with a man screaming “Juden! Dostin Hovvman! Juden!” While the man was escorted out, Hoffman says he feels he should have gone up to the man and said, “Yeah? And? And? What of it?”

The dramatic ending of “Marathon Man” that had Dr. Szell, a Nazi dentist played by Laurence Olivier, falling to his death while trying to retrieve his diamonds, resulted from Dustin Hoffman’s refusal to shoot him point blank, as was written in the script.

He told JC.com, “I won’t play a Jew who cold-bloodedly kills another human being. I won’t become a Nazi to kill a Nazi.”

Hoffman hasn’t abandoned film as a pursuit, and recently starred in a film “The Choir,” about a director of a boarding school choir. He feels his having a leading role may be attributable to the fact he is already a big name, and laments that as actors get older, they are usually relegated to supporting roles. He said his role in “The Choir” should really be a supporting one, since it is “really the story of the boy.”

After 50 years in show business, Hoffman is still going strong. He directed “The Quartet” in 2012, about a group of retired musicians. He experienced disappointment when the HBO TV Series “Luck” was cancelled after its second season.

Dustin Hoffman says if he had not been an actor, he would have been happy being a jazz pianist, but he didn’t feel he was skilled enough to play professionally.

His Aunt Pearl told him that he should not try to be an actor because he was “too ugly,” and his mother suggested that he follow her lead and also get a nose job, reassuring him with “you’ll feel better.”

Mike Nichols asked Hoffman to give a screen test for the part of Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate,” after seeing Hoffman perform on Broadway, even though Hoffman confessed he imagined an actor like Robert Redford getting the role.

On a bike, on a jet ski, climbing Masada — the sporty Bibi gets his TV special


“Can you get me a sandwich?” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said aloud to no one in particular in the film crew as he emerged from the back of an SUV, stepping into a bright, egg-yolk-hued sunset over Jaffa, Israel. A swarm of security dudes in sunglasses and secret-service earphones immediately closed in behind him. “Lo humus” (“no hummus”), the prime minister added over his shoulder.

Netanyahu had come to shoot a scene with CBS travel editor Peter Greenberg — one of the last in a grueling week of shoots for “Israel: The Royal Tour,” the long-anticipated special set to air on U.S. public television beginning March 6. This will be the latest in the “Royal Tour” series, in which Greenberg tours various countries — including Jordan, Mexico, Peru, Jamaica and New Zealand — with each country’s head of state as his guide.

For the Jaffa scene, Greenberg walked along a beach promenade with Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as the trio admired the Tel Aviv skyline rising to the north and the Mediterranean shimmering to the west.

“When I first came here, there were no high-rises in Tel Aviv,” Greenberg tells the Netanyahus in the final cut.

The prime minister responds, coolly: “Well, that’s actually what my son told me. He was 5 years old, and he said, ‘Daddy, we don’t have a skyline!’ And I said, ‘Relax, kid. I’ll get you a skyline.’ ”

The Jaffa set had been pretty chaotic for the half-hour before Netanyahu’s arrival. Public-relations people from the Tel Aviv municipality, a bunch of extras on Segways who thought they were about to shoot a commercial for the Ministry of Tourism, and a couple of Israeli news crews darted about aimlessly, waiting for the prime minister’s motorcade to crawl through rush-hour traffic. Armed men, dressed in black, started to appear on hilltops overlooking the promenade. Greenberg himself paced nervously in a nearby parking lot, dealing with a helicopter problem for the scene at Masada the next day. “Let’s get this thing solved, man, right now!” he said into his cell phone.

When the SUV carrying the prime minister finally pulled up, chaos exploded into pure star-struck energy. Much to the crowd’s delight, after walking the promenade, Netanyahu and Greenberg hopped on two green bicycles, part of Tel Aviv’s prized bike-share program, and began to race.

“Hey guys, I hope you’re getting him on the bicycle, because that was totally unexpected — we won’t get that again,” John Feist, the show’s director, shouted at his cameramen.

The normally stony-faced prime minister, a gargoyle of strength for Israel and a divisive figure in the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, seemed to embrace this breezy, candid persona he was shaping for American TV. After the bike race, he said to Greenberg: “You have to come here once a year and we do this program, so I get out — ride a bike, run a jet ski, have some fun!” (A few days before, they’d gone jet skiing on the Sea of Galilee.)

Sara Netanyahu agreed — as long as no soccer was involved.

She was referring to the ankle pop heard round the nation in June 2012, when the “Royal Tour” first began filming: On an outing to a soccer match between Arab and Jewish youth, Netanyahu sprained his ankle while taking a penalty shot.

“When he came to the United Nations and he had this special speech where he showed the [illustration of the Iranian] bomb, he was actually limping, but nobody saw it,” Greenberg said in an interview with the Journal while driving on the freeway from Jerusalem to Jaffa.

Netanyahu and Greenberg on Masada at sunrise. Photo by Tina Hager, courtesy of WNET New York Public Media

With its star in a leg cast, the “Royal Tour” was forced to pack up and fly home. However, Netanyahu and Greenberg picked up where they left off the following summer — rafting, jet skiing, boating, hiking, driving and bicycling across Israel.

“His own security guard looked at me and said, ‘We have never, ever seen him like this,’ ” Greenberg said. “He and I went on dune buggies together, and he was driving like a madman. It’s great television.”

Although the Ministry of Tourism has taken credit for luring Greenberg to Israel, he said the segment was entirely his idea and was initiated through a friend of a friend who knew the prime minister.

No doubt, Israel stands to benefit from the show in a big way: According to Greenberg, tourism went up almost 20 percent in Jordan after his “Royal Tour” with King Abdullah II in 2002 and rose almost 10 percent in Mexico, Peru and Jamaica after his tours in those countries. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism has predicted a boost of about 200,000 tourists thanks to Greenberg’s show, infusing an extra $285 million into the Israeli economy.

“Everyone who sees a program by Peter Greenberg, who is well known in the travel community — it’s going to be a major revelation, and hopefully it will lead to the creation of Israel as a desirable destination,” said Scott Feinerman, director of clergy and travel industry relations at the Ministry of Tourism’s office in Los Angeles.

Greenberg sees “Israel: The Royal Tour” as a chance for the world to get to know the nation through the eyes of its leader. However, he draws a firm line between travel reporting and PR: He said there has been “truly a separation of church and state” between him and the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, which was not allowed to review the final cut.

“It’s not my job to promote Israel — that’s the job of advertisers,” Greenberg said. “If I’m doing my job right, it’s to present it in a way that’s credible and that’s real. You have two guys, like two guys on a road trip, and one of them just happens to be the prime minister. And he and I are talking to each other, like you and I are talking to each other. It humanizes the country.”

Although Greenberg succeeded in helping the prime minister let loose a little, chronic Israel critics are sure to attack the show for avoiding more contested parts of the country. Unlike food critic Anthony Bourdain, another half-Jewish TV journalist who toured Israel last year and covered all his bases — Gaza, the West Bank, the settlements — the closest Greenberg comes to controversy is when he enjoys a cheese pastry called kanafeh in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, sans prime minister.

“Look, there will be people out there who say I was too hard, and there will be a lot of people saying I was too soft. But that’s not what the show’s about,” Greenberg said.

At the beginning of the episode, Greenberg does sit down with Netanyahu for an eight-minute interview that addresses the elephant in the room: the Israel-Palestine conflict. “Every time I’ve come to this region, and I bring up the notion of peace, someone always says, ‘It’s not the right time in the Middle East’…,” Greenberg says. “So I have to ask you: When is it ever going to be the right time?”

Netanyahu’s response, in part: “I think when I bring a peace agreement to the people of Israel, they’ll believe me. Because they trust me to take care of that foundation of peace, which is: You can’t have peace without security in the Middle East. It won’t hold for a day. I’m a great champion of peace through strength. I insist on the strength; therefore, I can get the peace.”

The Israeli prime minister’s son, 23-year-old Yair Netanyahu (right), explained the Tel Aviv party circuit to visiting journalist Peter Greenberg. “We start the night around 1 or 2 [a.m.],” he said. “This is really early, so you call this the pre-game.” Photo by Simone Wilson

From there, the show takes a turn toward feel-good and never slows down. Netanyahu leads Greenberg to check out emerging technologies at Technion (“Israel’s MIT”), swim with wild dolphins in the Red Sea, raft the Jordan River, touch the little-known underground section of the Western Wall, climb the Masada fortress in the middle of the Negev desert and float in the Dead Sea.

“It’s best between the scenes,” said Mark Feist, the show’s lead sound guy, who was hooked up to Netanyahu’s feed. “When the mics are running off-camera, he gets really pushy.”

The shoot also coincided with a tense period of peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, so Greenberg got to witness some residual state matters. “When I’m with Netanyahu, he’s on the phone taking a call from [U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry] at least once a day,” Greenberg said. “He and I have had a number of back-channel conversations about the issue.”

In front of the camera, though, Netanyahu never seems to fully let down his guard; ultimately, he remains the hard-to-pin-down politician the world knows him as. In a definitive Vanity Fair piece called “The Netanyahu Paradox” from 2012, reporter David Margolick called the prime minister of Israel “compulsively cautious” and “both its strongest and its weakest leader in memory.” Aside from revealing his more goofy, sporty side, the “Royal Tour” episode doesn’t do much to clear up the Netanyahu enigma. His one-liners often come off as slightly canned — perhaps because some were shot multiple times to avoid any stumbles in conversation.

On July 7, after filming a couple of scenes in Jaffa, the group headed to Vicky Cristina, a high-end, Barcelona-inspired bar on the edge of Tel Aviv.

“It’s become just a hub — it’s a high-tech city, fashion city, culture city,” Netanyahu says of Tel Aviv at the bar.

Upon arrival, the prime minister and his wife did a slow lap around Vicky Cristina to the tune of a lively Spanish guitar, posing for cell-phone pictures and shaking hands. And when they finally settled down at the bar, Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s 23-year-old son, showed up to order a round of elaborate pink cocktails and talk about his area of expertise: Tel Aviv nightlife.

Yair, not as practiced a politician as his father, spoke freely, giving some context to Tel Aviv by critiquing its neighbors (“We’re surrounded by countries that stone people and execute women”) and lending some insight into Birthright (“All the Americans come here because you can drink when you’re 18”). 

But any indiscrete comments were cut from the episode — as was a midnight visit to a club next door. After Netanyahu and his wife headed home, Yair and a group of good-looking girls led Greenberg to a V.I.P. table for a few rounds of shots. 

It was an Israeli tabloid’s dream — not in small part because the group of clubgoers included Sandra Leikanger, a Norwegian college mate of Yair, who would later see her face plastered across the Hebrew media when she was outed as his non-Jewish girlfriend. (“She’s great,” Greenberg said of meeting Leikanger. “I think anybody should be able to date anybody they want.”) Hanging back in the crowd, Yair’s bodyguard, who did not give his name, said his job often consisted of staying out until dawn at nightclubs to keep an eye on his young boss.

But Greenberg and the crew soon left the youngsters to their own devices, as they were on a tight schedule: They had to be at Masada in a few hours for a sunrise shoot. “Nobody slept at all. It was pure adrenaline,” Greenberg later said.

The next morning, at the historical site of the Jews’ last stand against the Romans, the crew would film their opening shot for “Israel: The Royal Tour” — a swirling aerial view of Netanyahu standing atop the fortress, looking out across the Negev. Goldberg narrates: “He’s a man who lives and breathes the past and future of his people. And now, he leads his nation as it faces one of the most critical crossroads in its history.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attend the Los Angeles premiere of “Israel: The Royal Tour” on March 4, after meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. The show will begin airing on public television throughout the United States on March 6. 

Marty Kaplan: No news is bad news


If you think the widening chasm between the rich and the rest spells trouble for American democracy, have a look at the growing gulf between the information-rich and -poor.

Earlier this year, a Harvard economist’s jaw-dropping study of American’s beliefs about the distribution of American wealth became a “>new Pew study of the distribution of American news consumption is just as flabbergasting. 

According to the Harvard study, most people believe that the top 20 percent of the country owns about half the nation’s wealth, and that the lower 60 percent combined, including the 20 percent in the middle, have only about 20 percent of the wealth.  A whopping 92 percent of Americans think this is out of whack; in the ideal distribution, they said, the lower 60 percent would have about half of the wealth, with the middle 20 percent of the people owning 20 percent of the wealth.