November 12, 2018

The Magic of Empathy

Screenshot from YouTube

It’s common knowledge that  “unscripted” “reality TV” is far from real. Ironically, modern scripted television is often critically acclaimed because of how real the shows feel — more real than any reality TV.

Indulging in entertainment through television and film can be a temporary escape from the struggles of our daily lives. Entertainment at its best, however, can provide commentary or insight into our struggles and the struggles of others. Fiction has the power to illuminate the darkness of our world, to see our concerns validated on a screen, to comfort us.

I was initially dismissive toward a show on Netflix, a remake of “One Day at a Time,” because I assumed it was just another sitcom with an overtly ethnic family scoring laughs by playing off stereotypical foibles and quirks in their culture.

But I was wrong.

Norman Lear’s remake is one of the realest shows you can watch these days. Lear is legendary for his uncanny talent at weaving social and political issues into sitcoms. The “One Day at a Time” reboot is about a Cuban-American family — an immigrant grandmother played by Rita Moreno, an American-born daughter, her two teenage children, and a trust-fund man-child who manages their Los Angeles apartment building. The show is hilarious, but that’s not what makes it remarkable.

There are nearly as many arguments in a “One Day at a Time” episode as there are in a typical tractate of Talmud.

In addition to the episodic story arc, almost every episode in Season Two deals with a social issue. In the season premiere, some teenage bullies tease the 14-year-old boy with racial slurs, including a chant of “build the wall.” That episode deals poignantly with racism and xenophobia. Later in the season, the show tackles the importance of voting and the struggles of immigration, as well as PTSD and gun ownership.

Humor keeps it light, but the substantive material is heavy and deep. The deepest are two consecutive episodes in the middle of the season. The first is about homophobia and the struggle of families torn apart by the challenges of discovering one’s son or daughter is gay. The very next episode deals with mental health and the struggles of anxiety and depression.

“One Day at a Time” integrates social issues into its humor and drama beautifully — but the magic is that it does so without preaching or grandstanding. Divisive issues are written about with wit and empathy. Characters disagree and argue — a lot. But they know how to talk with one another and, more importantly, they know how to listen.

There are nearly as many arguments in a “One Day at a Time” episode as there are in a typical tractate of Talmud. Like the Talmud, the arguments can be heated and they are not always resolved with an agreement, but through the process of arguing with love, without hate or fear, nearly every argument ends with a closer relationship between the characters. The secret ingredient, of course, is empathy. Some of the best moments in the show are a variation of “I don’t necessarily agree with you, but I am here for you, and will always love you.”

It is too easy to divide America into groups of conformity and nonconformity, Black and white, religion, gender, politics, age or region. If we are honest, we acknowledge that we are divided, just like the characters in “One Day at a Time.” We disagree. We argue. We fight. But we are a family — and family is family — even when we are at each other’s throats. With family, it is empathetic disagreement.

America, at its best and highest and deepest, is family. This is not literally true, but it is the noble promise of our great country. When one of us falls, one of us should be there, just like family.

“One Day at a Time” is honest. It is honest about the ills and flaws of America today. It is honest about immigration, about LGBT issues, about multiculturalism, about aging, about privilege, about marriage. Its unabashed honesty makes “One Day at a Time” more real than reality TV.

But in its honesty, it also shows us a way forward — disagreement with empathy. In its entertaining way, it embodies a ray of hope in our dark winter of discontent. If we listen carefully, maybe can emulate the show, one day at a time.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Netanyahu era ‘coming to an end,’ says former ally Lapid

The era of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ending, with Israeli voters clearly more concerned about economic and social issues than about security or fears over Iran, a leading election candidate said on Monday.

The centre-left opposition is poised for a surprise victory over Netanyahu's right-wing Likud in one of Israel's most nail-biting elections in years, according to the last polls. Nearly six million Israelis are eligible to vote in Tuesday's election.

Yair Lapid, a telegenic former news anchor and TV host, leads the centrist, secular Yesh Atid party (“There's a Future”), which emerged out of the cost-of-living protests that swept Israel in 2011.

The party came a surprise second in the last election in 2013 and is again set for an influential showing.

“The majority of Israelis want change,” Lapid, 51, told Reuters in between campaign events.

“The Netanyahu era is coming to an end. That's not because security issues don't matter but because social and economic issues are dominating the agenda,” he said in an interview.

“Netanyahu has missed his moment. You can't blame him – it's never easy to know when the moment of your era passes. But for him it has passed.”

Lapid was finance minister in Netanyahu's outgoing government but the two seldom saw eye-to-eye, and it was the dismissal of Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in December that precipitated these elections.

When Netanyahu called the vote he looked set to secure a fourth term in office, which would have put him on track to become the country's longest-serving prime minister.

But his focus on the threat from Iran's nuclear program and Islamist militants in Gaza and the region left voters uninspired, with even long-running Likud supporters saying they had heard such rhetoric before.

Netanyahu's speech to the U.S. Congress, criticized by many at home and in Washington, also appears to have marked something of a turning point. Before the speech, he was broadly ahead in opinion polls but his numbers have trailed off since, with his anti-Iran message failing to gain traction.

Final polls published on Friday nearly all showed the Zionist Union, the centre-left opposition alliance led by Isaac Herzog and Livni, holding a four-seat advantage going into the vote.

“KINGMAKER”

No party has ever won an outright majority in Israel, meaning coalition-building is critical. It is also a tricky and unpredictable affair, with a vast array of allegiances possible among the 11 parties expected to end up in parliament.

Even if Netanyahu and Likud win fewer seats than the centre-left, they could still end up forming a coalition, especially as there are more like-minded parties on the right and far-right than there are on the center or left.

That puts kingmakers like Lapid in a commanding position. Going into the 2013 election, Yesh Atid was predicted to win 13 seats and ended up getting 19. Lapid reckons a repeat of that is possible this time around and some analysts agree.

His party is known for having a strong grassroots organization, and activists say Israel's polling methods, which largely rely on fixed line calls rather than mobile ones, fail to capture the party's support among young urbanites.

“Around 15 percent of voters make up their minds on the day and we're pretty good at tapping into those people,” said Lapid, who is fond of wearing t-shirts with a suit jacket and jeans. Polls do show his party carrying momentum into the vote.

A problem, though, is how easily the centre-left could build a coalition if it wins. Lapid is a natural ally, but he has in the past been critical of ultra-Orthodox parties, which the centre-left needs onside if it is to cobble together the necessary 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

Asked about the Orthodox factions, Lapid would not rule out working with them, and equally would not rule out working with Netanyahu again. In Israel's cloak-and-dagger coalition negotiations, such flexibility is key to survival.

If the centre-left does win and manages to form a coalition, Lapid believes it opens the way for a re-engagement with the Palestinians, an issue that has been frozen for nearly a year and which is unlikely to be unfrozen if Netanyahu returns.

It may not happen right away, he says, but if Israel's socioeconomic challenges can be addressed, tackling the conflict with the Palestinians will flow naturally from that.

Lapid and the Zionist Union leaders all openly discuss the possibility of an independent Palestinian state, something Netanyahu will barely mention.

“There is a wind of change, and if there is a wind of change on domestic issues, there is going to be a wind of change on Palestinian issues as well,” said Lapid. “It's not something done in one leap, it's a triple jump, but it's coming.”

How ‘Transparent’ became the most important new series of the year

There's a phrase that has become popular among the kids today–'in your feelings,' or 'in my feelings.' As in, 'Oh, I was just all in my feelings the other day.' It's a way of admitting to being emotional, perhaps to a fault, and humorously exposing that vulnerability, owning it to the point of empowerment.

Whether she knew she was doing this or not, Jill Soloway took this concept and created the most important television show of the year, Transparent, the first of Amazon's original series. However, it's strange to hear an acclaimed and accomplished writer (know for her previous work on Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara) talk about working from a place of seemingly pure emotion. And it's almost difficult to hear her and her co-director, Nisha Ganatra, proudly proclaim that much of this brilliant show is a result of, well, feelings.

Such talk goes against a certain privileging of intellectuality that functions as home base for critical analysis and disrupts our understanding of how this golden age of television works. And any privileging of emotions seems to go against a feminism that strives to place women on equal intellectual and economical footing as men–for how can we convince others that women are not wildly emotional creatures, thinking, analyzing, and working from their feelings if Jill Soloway and Nisha Ganatra confess to doing just that in a conversation about the most important television series of the year? We'll get to that shortly.

The co-directors, joined by Amy Landecker (who plays Sarah Pfefferman on the show), open up to Paste about how Transparent was made, and how that experience transcended anything they'd ever seen in Hollywood. 

'She wanted to shoot it like no other series has been shot,' Ganatra explains. 'She's incredibly collaborative, and not afraid of anybody–not into the power dynamics.' Soloway hired Ganatra based on a 'good feeling,' and she became the only other individual to share the title of director, contributing three episodes that flow in seamlessly with the other seven. But there was such closeness between the directors, writers and actors (and so much input at every level), that those titles and labels almost seem inaccurate.

Landecker likens the process to 'some utopian TV fantasy.' As incredible as it is to watch the story of Transparent unfold, it was, apparently, just as powerful creating it.

'I went through a pretty bad depression when we stopped shooting,' Landecker admits. 'Because it was the most intense and fulfilling experience I have ever had.' 

Soloway purposely surrounded herself with women, and Ganatra proudly describes all of them as 'deeply emotional artists,' herself included. And she maintains that the series is the final product of a room full of people–mostly women–who were given permission to be emotional on the job. For this, she says, Soloway is incredibly brave.

'People really shy away from that, or don't want to admit that they're working from instinct, when they are,' Ganatras says. She argues that many artists work in this way–men and women. They just don't feel comfortable saying so. 'Jill just gives you permission to say, 'I just feel this way, and that's why we're doing it.'' Behind the scenes of Transparent, emotion was the most valued commodity. 

'I work in an open, intimate, collaborative way,' Soloway says, practically shrugging it off. Although the story was inspired by her own parent's coming out, she actually starts most of her work with a small idea, or an image (the family eating barbecue together was the first scene she wrote for Transparent), and asks the writers and actors to help her fill in much of the rest.

So it seems that this beautiful, succinct series–which moved so fluidly and with so much realism–was made by, well, everyone. Everyone Soloway chose to be a part of it in any way could contribute anywhere; all of which seems like the opposite of what one would do, if one were running a show. How do you hold on to your own vision, if everyone has say? If everyone's creating the piece, who is the true creator?

Luckily for us, Soloway and Ganatra didn't ask themselves such questions as they went about making Season One. As a result, they brought us the incredible story of the Pfefferman clan, at the head of which is Maura, formerly known as Mort (played by the brilliant Jeffrey Tambor). After being outed by her eldest daughter (Landecker), Maura explains that she has spent her entire life dressing up like a man. The series follows her as she transitions into life as a woman, under the gaze of her three adult children–Sarah, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) and Josh (Jay Duplass)–all of whom are experiencing their own physical and emotional transitions.

With an amazing score, bizarre yet identifiable characters, and an incredible storyline, Transparent takes on the institutions of marriage and sexuality, death, race, sex abuse, class, feminism and religion (in just 10 episodes), in the best and most entertaining way possible–with comedy. The very premise of the series–a man in his late 60s, coming out–lends itself to humor. But Soloway confesses that early on in the writing process, another key element was missing from her show. 

'The show was funny, and it was also kind of sexy, and it was emotional,' she says of those first scripts. 'But we realized that the missing thing flowing through everything was spirituality.' Soloway, who laughingly admits to 'a pretty hodge-podge, made-up belief in God,' sees herself as vessel more than a director, and once she allowed the underlying spirituality of her story to flow freely, religion–Pfefferman-style–became a major component of the narrative. Dubbed (lovingly) by one publication as the Jewiest show ever, it's significant that Soloway shares her position of director (or vessel) with Nisha Ganatra.

'I'm a deeply spiritual person,' Ganatra says. 'Even though I'm of the Hindu faith, and she's Jewish, there's so much overlap. It was something we knew without saying to each other.' Ganatra believes that this is why there's an energy over the whole project that 'comes across naturally in the scenes.' And along with that energy, religious doctrine and dogma–in all its comedy and glory–are written heavily into the script. 

'The show is about God,' Soloway offers. 'I think the show is about the soul, and the search for the self in the understanding of the soul. There's a yearning for soulfulness, and a yearning for meaning through the prism of family.'

The Shabbat dinner scene is one place where all of these elements come together under the umbrella of Judaism. Landecker says the scene is one of her favorites. 'It had it all–family, love, friendship, conflict, absurdity.' 

Her estranged husband Len shows up to get the kids, and, upon seeing Maura–not Mort–for the first time, he completely loses it, and poses a few questions to Sarah, her lover Tammy, Maura, and Maura's friend, another trans woman Davina:

'Would you ladies be more comfortable if you lived on an all-female planet? Maybe you could sail off in a uterus-shaped spaceship. Maybe I could cut my dick off!'

In this scene, Len is, suffice it to say, all in his feelings. But Landecker's correct–it's not just funny; it's a scene that has everything. Religious tradition is both embraced and subverted, as Sarah celebrates the day of rest with her lover (who is not Jewish) and her transitioning parent. 

'When Sarah says 'It's a tradition for the mother of the house to light the candles,' and hands the matches to Maura, I think that is such a beautiful moment of progress and tradition,' Landecker says. 'The show is firmly planted in the past, and the future–and it shows how the two can coexist.' The series accomplishes all this without playing like a show meant for people of the Jewish faith, or people of any faith in particular–which, in and of itself, is a small miracle. 

In Transparent sexual identity loses its 'statehood' and becomes fluid, treated like an ongoing process with its own ebbs and flows. Many of the characters reflect this in some way, but Sarah Pfefferman is probably the strongest example.

At the start of the series Sarah is a stay-at-home mom buried in bento boxes and private school playdates. She soon leaves her husband for her college girlfriend, Tammy (who is also married, but to another woman). When her 'lesbian' relationship eventually begins to experience problems similar to those in her marriage to Len, she finds herself back in the arms of her husband. Whether she is gay, straight or bisexual is the least interesting question here. The series demands greater questions. 

'[Jill and I] never did define her [sexuality],' Landecker says. 'Sarah is so great because she represents a continuum of love and sexuality, and as we explore LGBTQ issues within the show and within the community, we become more aware that binary thinking is a great pitfall for humanity. It's too limiting and disregards our potential for many shades of grey.' Landecker goes on to say that all of Jill's characters are complicated in this way–especially the women.

Soloway points out that Sarah's is a story of escape–not escape of the straight life, gay life, or any life with a specific sexual identity attached to it. Instead, it's an escape from what had become her unfulfilling norm. 

If Sarah Pfefferman represents a subversion of our expectations of sexuality and sexual identity, Kathryn Hahn's Raquel Fein represents a subversion of our expectations for the sexuality–and overall personality–of a religious leader. Hahn (described by Landecker as ' one of the greatest actresses I know') starred in Soloway's directorial debut Afternoon Delight, and the director knew she wanted her to play a significant role in Transparent. As Rabbi Raquel and love interest of Duplass' Josh Pfefferman, she often steals the show. In one of her early scenes she gives a moving sermon, breaking down the books of Genesis and Exodus, and explaining that those Jews who were in bondage may have escaped, but never make it to the other side. She brings out the tragedy in the story of the Promised Land. Shortly thereafter, we see her joking with Josh about being a single woman who suffers from 'crunchy, crispy eggs' (she thinks she may have missed the baby boat), and then shortly after that, we see her making messy, beautiful love to him. Any of our preconceived notions about what rabbis do in their spare time is suddenly and wonderfully complicated.

'It's a really fun way to invert people's expectations of certain figures.' Because of Raquel, we can now envision a rabbi as a lover, as a friend, and as a flawed human being. And her presence in Transparent is another representation of a necessary collapsing of oppositions–sex, spirituality, tragedy, comedy–it's all there (even in that single character), an apt, appropriate reflection of real life for many of us. 

Transparent is the most important series of 2014 because–even as it exists alongside shows like The Good WifeScandal, and other series actively participating in the feminist movement–it takes all of these messages further by shaking up the rigidly defined structures upon which we've all depended for so long. In Tambor's Maura, 'male' and 'female' are shaken up (as a result, so are 'mother' and 'father'), and in the very presentation of the series–this collaborative project where actors also took on writer and directorial duties (and Soloway even made a cameo, as the unforgettable professor in Ali's Gender Theory course), no one position is easily defined. In the closing scene of the finale, we also see Judaism and Christianity coming together, as a character named Colton says a final prayer. 

'The last line of the season was going to be [Colton's], 'In Jesus name we pray,'' Soloway explains. When Tambor improvised with 'Oy gevalt,' that became the last line–but the message still stood. 'We knew it would have that shape,' she says. 'Opening up from Judaism, from the Old Testament, into religion as a whole.' 

Tambor's penchant for improv led to another great moment in the series. He's learning to sit in a more feminine manner, when his friend Davina scolds him for letting it all hang out. 'Your male privilege is leaking all over the place,' she says. And when Maura tries to work that femininity into her walk, she eventually gets fed up–and walks right out of the 'lesson.' Ganatra laughs as she recalls shooting that scene and says that it was never in the original script.

'He's going from being a very confident and competent man in the world, to going back to learning everything, like a child,' she says. 'So he just walks right out!'

And it's a great image to associate with the feminist movement. Training for womanhood, if only to abandon the notion altogether–but doing so with a splash (or more) of comedy.

'It's important for feminism to have a sense of humor, and look at all the silliness that comes from people really wanting women to argue with each other, instead of focusing on changing, and growing, and bringing forth the revolution,' Soloway says.

And such humor is the backbone of her series, which has been picked for a second season, and will see Ganatra and Soloway back in the directors' seats (while Josh Pfefferman may be moving into the family house).

Landecker says we should all brace ourselves for impact, as she has high hopes for the series.

'I want it to save lives. I actually think it will. I want the world to get comfortable with the transgender community.'

Even as Transparent goes on to change lives and the world (for there's no doubt that it can) we suspect that the people behind this amazing show will continue to operate from their emotional spaces–that they will enact such change by continuing to work, create, and stay all the way in their feelings. 

This essay first appeared in Paste.  Reprinted with permission. 

Netanyahu makes cost-of-living promise ahead of Israeli election

In nearly nine years as Israel's prime minister spread over three terms, Benjamin Netanyahu has been a security hawk, promising to do whatever it takes to combat the threat from Palestinian militants or a nuclear-armed Iran.

But as he opened his campaign for a fourth term ahead of elections set for March 17, Netanyahu stepped away from his security base to make a pitch for the large number of Israelis who are more worried about the high cost of living.

At an economic conference in Tel Aviv on Monday, he promised to cut the value added tax imposed on basic foods such as milk, bread, cheese and eggs to zero from 18 percent.

It was a bold move to head off the threat from more centrist candidates, such as Yair Lapid, the telegenic finance minister who was fired by Netanyahu last week, who are expected to make the cost of living a central plank of their campaigns.

“This is a benefit for millions of citizens a year,” said Netanyahu, saying it would cost 2 billion shekels ($500 million), one billion less than a plan Lapid had to cut the VAT on housing for first-time buyers.

“The weaker the family, the more members in a family, the greater the savings will be,” he said, casting the promise as attractive to the ultra-Orthodox community, who tend to have large families and could swing the election this time.

While security issues are never far from Israelis' minds, particularly after the war in Gaza, surveys indicate that the cost of living is the dominant issue ahead of the next election.

A poll by Israel's Channel 10 this week showed nearly half of those surveyed (48 percent) put high prices and social policies as the main influence on how they will vote.

That is higher than a poll conducted before the last election in January 2013, when 43 percent cited economic issues and the cost of living as the biggest concern.

In that vote, Lapid, a former TV presenter, won 19 of parliament's 120 seats, making his party the single biggest.

After years of hammering on about the existential threat Israel faces, Netanyahu knows he has to offer hope to those struggling to make ends meet if he is to hold on to power.

“The other parties are making the point for socio-economic issues and they have good political reasons to do it,” said Gideon Rahat, a professor of politics at Hebrew University.

“Many people in Israel have had enough of security and foreign policy. They want progress on socio-economic issues.”

While Lapid's star has faded and polls predict he will win only around nine seats in the next election, the new threat for Netanyahu comes from Moshe Kahlon, a former communications minister and ex-member of Netanyahu's own Likud party.

Kahlon got the credit for bringing mobile phone costs down dramatically over the past two years, making him the new cost-of-living champion. Some polls predict he could win 12 seats next year. The question is whether he can bring his price-cutting powers to other sectors.