On Transgender Day of Remembrance, Jews join in to show support


For most, the experience of growing up as the Jewish child of a transgender father is recognizable only as the plot of the television series “Transparent.” But for Jackie Malie Mason, that was her childhood.

“Before my father rose from her ashes [as an out transgender woman], my relationship with Judaism wasn’t very passionate,” she said. But watching her mother’s Jewish family accept her father “with open arms,” even when her father’s own non-Jewish family didn’t, showed her that Judaism is a faith of “love and acceptance — and horseradish on Passover.”

Mason spoke on a panel to a group of some 70 people gathered on Nov. 20, Transgender Day of Remembrance, at the West Hollywood headquarters of JQ International.

Love and acceptance were the day’s watchwords at JQ’s Trans Equality Brunch, the largest gathering ever focused on transgender issues for the organization, an alliance of the Jewish and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.

Guests were given nametags and asked to write their names and preferred gender pronouns, and then gathered on a small, open-air patio at JQ’s office on Santa Monica Boulevard for a brunch of lox and bagels. Inside, the men and women’s restrooms were papered with signs reading “whichever.”

“What an amazing moment this is in our history — and herstory, and theirstory,” Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or, the director of JQ’s call-in helpline, said as she introduced the panel that followed the brunch.

During the panel, Mason, along with two transgender women and one transgender man, took questions from moderator Laurie Tragen-Boykoff, a social worker who works in the transgender community.

Transgender Day of Remembrance is a nationally recognized event calling for empowerment of transgender individuals and their allies as well as reflection on lives lost to suicide and assault, both endemic in that community. 

The transgender panelists were invited to share their experiences with the crowd, many of whom came from sponsoring congregations Temple Beth Am, Temple Kol Tikvah, Beth Chayim Chadashim (an LGBT congregation), and the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.

“How many of you have tried to keep an inflatable beach ball underwater?” said Mike/Michelle Dennis. “It’s really hard, right? Well that’s what I did for 50 years.”

Dennis, who is 74, said she uses both names to foster questions that lead to understanding.

Jake Hofheimer is a more recent initiate to the transgender family. The 17-year-old is a senior at the New Roads School in Santa Monica and a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood. He said at the event that both communities have proved very supportive of his transition.

But support from the Jewish community has not been monolithic. On a trip he went on with the Religious Action Center, the social justice arm of the Reform movement, a teen from Oklahoma began making demeaning comments toward transgender people, calling them disgusting and mentally ill. When Hofheimer said that he was transgender, the teen was surprised.

“He said, ‘Oh, I kind of thought you were a normal dude,’ ” Hofheimer recalled. “‘I was like, ‘Well, what is normal?’ ”

After the panel, many participants headed around the corner to a vigil at the West Hollywood Library. Despite televisions that flanked the stage showing flickering candles, the atmosphere was festive: Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” played over the sound system as a couple danced in the back, and behind the stage members of a mariachi band tuned their instruments. 

Rain fell steadily; in the covered plaza of the library, though, spirits were high. Hosted by West Hollywood’s Transgender Advisory Board, a first-of-its-kind government panel, the event drew some 300 attendees, who sat in folding chairs and cheered raucously for statements of solidarity and calls for transgender empowerment.

But when the day’s speakers addressed the crowd, their message was somber, recalling the memory of the transgender individuals who died this past year. 

Taking the stage, Hofheimer told the crowd how he was continuously humiliated at his all-girls middle school, even facing physical harassment for being a “tomboy.”

Many speakers referenced the presidential election earlier this month as cause for concern. Mention of Vice President-elect Mike Pence drew loud boos.

“Especially now — what’s happening in national politics — it’s more important than ever to come together, because we really are stronger together,” West Hollywood Mayor Lauren Meister told the Journal as she prepared to go onstage.

Meister said she’s motivated by her personal identity as a Jewish woman to ally herself with the transgender community.

“Knowing our history, we have to stand with minorities who are trying to get to equality,” she said.

Jill Soloway’s pitch for matriarchy


When “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway ascended to the stage at the Emmys last Sunday to accept her award for directing, she seized the opportunity to make a statement.

“People ask me if it’s hard to be a director, and I tell them ‘no,’ ” she said to the audience. “Life is very hard; being a good partner, being a good mother. Being a good person is hard. Being a director is so f—— easy.”

Her words reminded me of something Soloway told The New Yorker’s Ariel Levy last December, when she was interviewed about the award-winning series that tells the story of a Jewish family patriarch who chooses to transition to become a matriarch. Soloway was explaining why she felt women are well-suited to the profession of directing, even though so few of them are given the opportunity.

“We all know how to do it,” she said. “We f—— grew up doing it! It’s dolls. How did men make us think we weren’t good at this? It’s dolls and feelings. And women are fighting to become directors? What the f— happened?”

Soloway is known for delivering feminist messages from the microphone. In fact, the more successful she becomes, it seems, the more outspoken she is. At the Emmys, she concluded her speech with an exuberant and audacious call to “topple the patriarchy” as she waved her golden statuette like a sword before battle — in front of an industry notorious for its leadership of middle-aged, white men. “Top-ple the pat-ri-ar-chy!” she cried. 

What’s interesting about Soloway’s statement-making is not simply that it reflects her gendered point of view, but a more meaningful, deep-seated belief that her success as a director emanates directly from her lived experience as a caretaker. Being a director, she tells us, is just like playing house. It’s pretend; it’s fun. But what makes her good at it is that she’s had real preparation stemming from the inbuilt qualities of being a woman. It is not motherhood itself, but, rather, the facility for motherhood that equips women with skills for leadership.

I was especially struck by this thought, because earlier on the day of the Emmys, I had attended a friend’s baby shower, where for several hours I was thoroughly immersed in the world of womanhood, motherhood, the Divine Feminine and the Shekhinah. A handful of the women who attended were pregnant, and several others were nursing. More than one spoke of her love for her child as something so transcendent and overwhelming, no other love could compare. “You think you know what love is before you have a baby?” one woman said. “You don’t.”

While I am sure I will feel that way should I be blessed to have a child of my own, I refrain from the assumption that those who choose not to have children, or who cannot have children, are not capable of real and deep love in their lives. But it is interesting that so many of the women at the shower felt the need to proclaim the greatness of motherhood. I suspect this is because it was important for them to affirm what society does not sufficiently acknowledge — that the role of a parent (a good parent) is of enormous value. Instead, we often hear people boast of professional and public achievements, rather than that they are good parents.

Enter Soloway, whose words later that same day affirmed the skills of women whose “professions” as parents have no economic value. She reminded us that we are still a society that values professional accomplishment more than personal accomplishment, and which celebrates the acquisition of capital more than the art of caregiving. And yet, she is also saying that it is precisely the feminine penchant for care over control that has made her a successful professional. “It’s dolls and feelings.”

Because I am not yet a parent, I offered my expectant friend the wisdom of my mother, who parented as capably and lovingly as is possible in that role. My mother was also a professional, a woman who built and ran her own business, and who went on to a second career, counseling high school students from low-income and inner-city neighborhoods. 

Even though my mother could be admired for building her own business, what most impacted my life, and the lives of my siblings, is the way she parented. When I remember her, I think less of what she accomplished or what she materially provided and more about the sensitivity and skill with which she raised us. Recently, a friend of my mother’s visited me in Los Angeles, and after a long conversation, took my hand, looked into my eyes, and said, “Your mother prepared you so well for life.”


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

How a Jewish trans father inspired a hit series


Writer and director Jill Soloway grew up in what she calls a “somewhat normalish, upper middle class Jewish household” in Chicago. Her mom was a public relations consultant (she worked for Mayor Jane Byrne) and her dad a psychiatrist.

But she always sensed that “something was a little off,” she tells JTA in a telephone interview. “Not much more than that. Just a little bit different.  Nothing I could easily identify.”

What that “little bit” was became clear about five years ago, when her father came out as transgender. His announcement not only filled a hole in her life, “it provided a missing piece in my understanding of myself and my ability to create authentic work,” Soloway says.

The “authentic” work that grew out of dad’s announcement is “Transparent,” the program that brought the problems facing transgender people to the forefront of public consciousness. When it debuted last year, it put the nascent Amazon Prime streaming service on the map.

The series, which begins its second season Dec. 11 and has already been renewed for a third, is about the impact on a family when dad makes such an unexpected announcement. In “Transparent,” the central character is 70-year-old Maura (nee Mort) Pfefferman (played by Jeffrey Tambor), who reintroduces himself to his ex-wife and three adult children — though it turns out he isn’t the only one with secrets.

Although its far from a traditional sitcom, “Transparent” is a show replete with many laugh-out-loud situations. They are leveled by poignant moments, many from Soloway’s real life. Standout scenes from the first season include when Maura tries to cash a check made out to Mort, or use a department store ladies room with daughters Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Ali (Gabby Hoffmann).

From the get-go, near unanimous critical praise made the show an awards juggernaut. It was nominated for 11 Emmys, winning five, including best director for Soloway and best actor for Tambor. Tambor scored another win for his role at the Golden Globes, which also named the show as best musical or comedy. The Television Critics Association named it program of the year — and the list goes on.

Soloway, 50, had a respectable career before her dad’s revelation. She was a writer and producer for several years on HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and was an executive producer and showrunner for “The United States of Tara.”

But she wanted a program of her own creation; her dad’s announcement provided inspiration.

And, yes, she told her parents that “I wanted to write a television show about our family,” Soloway recalls. “But I’d written so many failed pilots, I told them not to worry.”

And why would they? After all, what are the odds that a network would air a show about a man in his late 60s coming out as a woman?

“I took the show to all the usual suspects — HBO, Netflix, Showtime — and they all had different reasons why they didn’t pick it up,” Soloway says. “Everybody had a little excuse. But Amazon vehemently loved it and even though they didn’t have any [other original] shows, I went with them.”

Still, the unabashed success of “Transparent” was a bit of a surprise. “Since then, we’ve all had time to get used to [the show’s success], to realize it’s a part of a much bigger journey,” she says.

“We feel that sacrifice — no, that’s not the right word. We feel that allowing our family’s journey to be part of this civil rights movement and to contribute artistically, we all feel honored.”

That the Pfeffermans are Jewish is no accident.

“I’m just trying to be authentic and create characters who are real,” Soloway says. “I’m Jewish. My parents and grandparents are Jewish.”

Soloway adds that giving the Pfeffermans a strong Jewish identity has nothing to do with highlighting the family’s “otherness.”

“I think everyone feels a sense of otherness at some time,” she says. “You don’t have to be trans to feel everyone is staring at you. You don’t have to be trans to feel awkward and find it hard to know how to have sex with someone. At some point, everyone feels ‘other.’ Everyone has a family and wonders will they still love them if [they change].”

Plus, “the Jews love it,” she adds. “There’s so much Yiddish and they love Shelly [Judith Light, who plays Maura’s wife] and that the show is so unabashedly Jewy.”

The Jewiness continues this season: There’s a Yom Kippur episode and — spoiler alert! — a rabbi may soon join the family.

On a darker note, there are also flashbacks to 1930s Germany and Nazi attacks on Magnus Hirschfeld, a physician and sexologist who advocated for gay and transgender rights. It will provide a historical perspective to the issue and introduce a Pfefferman ancestor.

Maura loses her way, but Shelly stays centered providing unconditional — if occasionally kvetch-filled — love to all, the ultimate Yiddishe mama.

The great irony is that Soloway’s success is a result of what was almost certainly a difficult — or at least, confusing — time for her family. What would she be doing today if her father had kept his secret?

“That’s a good question,” Soloway says. “It’s a really good question. I’d probably still be struggling to get stuff made.”

WATCH: The new Transparent Season 2 teaser


The new season will begin on Dec. 11.

The rabbi behind the Jewish themes of ‘Transparent’


“Transparent” is one of the most critically acclaimed TV shows of 2014 and has put Amazon on the map as an outlet for quality original programming. It’s also done much to raise the profile of transgender people in pop culture. On Jan. 11, it could very well walk away with the Golden Globe for best comedy series. But did you know the show also has a rabbi consultant?

Jeffrey Tambor plays the “patriarch” of the very Jewish Los Angeles Pfefferman family, who comes out late in life as trans. Changing his name from Mort to Maura, he is just starting to live life as a woman. At the same time, his three adult children have their own issues with identity, sexuality and spirituality.  

The show was created by Jill Soloway, whose own father came out as transgender late in life. In order to represent the trans community as authentically as possible, Soloway hired trans consultants as advisers.

But she also sought help integrating the Jewish themes into the show, and for that she turned to Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. 

Before becoming a rabbi, Goldberg was a dancer, choreographer and theater maker, so the integration of art and spirituality comes naturally to her. She notes that while there are many Jewish writers, directors and creators in Hollywood, “Explicitly Jewish themes in television and movies are not really there. … I would be hard-pressed to think of another television program that has as many Jewish themes woven throughout each character’s story [as] this particular show.”

The Pfeffermans are a contemporary, “mostly culturally identified Jewish family,” so their Jewish themes are far from Orthodox. The eldest daughter starts holding Shabbat dinners with her lesbian lover after she leaves her husband. The youngest daughter laments canceling her bat mitzvah years ago. And the son starts a romantic relationship with a rabbi named Raquel, who comes in to counsel the family.
Perhaps the most explicit area of Goldberg’s job on “Transparent” is as the adviser and model for Rabbi Raquel, played by Kathryn Hahn. Given how rarely female clergy of any religion appear onscreen, Goldberg said she finds this character to be “quite an offering.” She points out that the only other TV series with female rabbis were “Six Feet Under” and “Weeds.” But she quickly adds that, as Soloway was a writer-producer on “Six Feet Under” and Jenji Kohan — a friend of Soloway and Goldberg — is the creator of “Weeds,” those characters hardly reflect a diverse perspective in Hollywood.

Goldberg invited Hahn to shadow her at work, and, in turn, found that the actress transmuted some of her own traits into the character. She admits it was strange to be on set and see the Rabbi Raquel character at a funeral swaying back and forth while the cantor chanted, just as she herself does in real life.

For the episode “The Wilderness,” Goldberg studied Torah with writer Ethan Kuperberg to help him work on a sermon Rabbi Raquel gives at a Shabbat service. “At the end of it, the writer said, ‘Great so I’ll see you next week. Let’s do this every week. Let’s study Torah!’ Which, you know, there’s not a much better thing you can say to a rabbi.”

Goldberg also took to the Torah for the episode when the youngest daughter, Ali (Gaby Hoffman), flashes back to the day she was supposed to have her bat mitzvah. Her father had allowed her to cancel the event on a whim, because he secretly wanted to go out of town that weekend to a camp where he’d briefly be free to dress and live as a woman.  

The portion Goldberg chose for Ali is from Lech Lecha, the story when Abraham was told to “go to himself and go on a journey.” After the bat mitzvah is canceled, Ali ends up reciting her portion standing on a coffee table in her living room. Meanwhile, her father is at the weekend getaway, surrounded by other men dressed as women.

“This idea of that Torah portion being the one that she didn’t get to do is meaningful, because at that same time the character of Maura has canceled the bat mitzvah partly because he wanted to go on his own weekend to reclaim his own gender identity,” Goldberg explained. “And so it’s the loss of [Ali’s] opportunity to be coming into her own as a woman, while her dad wants his opportunity to come into his own as a woman. And so all of the trans themes and the Jewish themes are really interwoven.”

 

Darby C. Maloney is the editor of “The Frame,” Southern California Public Radio’s show about art, entertainment and culture. She originally interviewed Rabbi Susan Goldberg for the show.

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. 

The Jewish stars of winter TV


Temperatures may be falling, but the small screen is heating up with buzz-worthy performances, must-see series and a few splashy specials. On the list: Lifetime’s adaptation of the biblical best-seller “The Red Tent,” with Debra Winger (Dec. 7 and 8),  NBC’s “Peter Pan Live!” from producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Dec. 4), and these stars of cable, network and Internet TV.


Jeffrey Tambor is getting critical praise for his Emmy-worthy turn in a literally transformative role: He plays Maura Pfefferman — formerly Mort, a retired political-science professor who’s transitioning to female in the Amazon Prime series “Transparent.” How does a 70-year-old reveal such a secret to her ex-wife (Judith Light) and three grown but emotionally immature, self-absorbed children? In the hands of writer Jill Soloway, it’s the source of incisive Jewish humor. 

“It reminds me a lot of my family and around our table,” said Tambor, who grew up Jewish in San Francisco. Other aspects of the situation also seemed familiar. “As a Jew, I understand ‘otherness,’ ” he said. But playing Maura has come with challenges, both physical and emotional.

Walking in heels took some getting used to, as did the hourlong sessions he’d spend in the makeup chair — four times his usual time. And, he said, “It’s the first time I’ve gone to ‘Hair’ in 40 years.” But, Tambor said, he was most concerned about portraying Maura truthfully. “This is a lot of responsibility,” he said. He regularly consulted the production’s transgendered advisers. “I asked a lot of personal questions. They’re often on the set, and just them being around gives me a lot of confidence.”

Tambor, 70, who has a grown daughter as well as younger children ages 9 and 7, plus 5-year-old twins and a grandson, said he feels especially close to the character. “I like her. I believe in her. I find her very comforting. She’s very real to me,” he said. “I think this is one of the best roles I’ve ever had in my life, and to have this happen on, shall we say, the back nine — there’s not an hour that doesn’t go by when I [don’t] say I’m very lucky.”

All 10 episodes of “Transparent” are now available on Amazon Prime. 


Messy marital splits and what it’s like to survive them and reinvent oneself in their aftermath is the subject of the incisively funny new Bravo series “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce,” which stars the similarly named Jewish actors Lisa Edelstein and Paul Adelstein as a couple calling it quits after 20 years.

Lisa Edelstein in “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce” Photo by Carole Segal/Bravo

Edelstein plays Abby Shoshanna McCarthy, an über-successful best-selling author of books on marriage and parenting whose husband cheats with a younger woman, causing her to have a career-jeopardizing public meltdown. Her divorced friends and gay brother are there to give her advice — for better or worse — on how to handle everything from the divorce to dating to raising her two kids, even as husband Jake remains very much still in the picture.

“It’s a bare-bones view of relationships and what happens when your life suddenly takes a really sharp turn. But you’re still a family. You grew up together,” said Adelstein, whose character, Jake Novack, has issues of his own. “He has been in a state of suspension. His career never took off. He didn’t have to go out and make a living because his wife was doing very well. He can’t rely on that anymore, and there’s some resentment over the fact that she’s the breadwinner. Just as the split forces Abby to take a hard look at herself, Jake has to take a look at himself and how he’s complicit.”

Judaism becomes an issue during a divorce mediation session when Abby, half-Jewish on her mother’s side but not a bat mitzvah, and Jake, Jewish on his father’s side, but a bar mitzvah, argue over who is “more Jewish.” Abby “insists that their kids be raised Jewish, though they already are — it’s not an issue until she makes it an issue,” Adelstein said. “But they find a middle ground on it. One of the things they decide is that it would be nice to have a family Shabbat, even if they’re splitting up. You see that at the end of Episode 2, and, in contrast to everything else that’s going on, it’s really poignant.” 

Filmed in Vancouver with exteriors shot in Los Angeles, “Girlfriends’ Guide” is set in Hollywood, where the divorce rate might seem disproportionately high. Adelstein chalks that up to publicity. “You might hear about people in Hollywood getting divorced more, but the statistics are the same,” he said. 

Married in real life to actress Liza Weil (“How to Get Away With Murder”) for eight years, Adelstein has a strong Jewish identity and is an active member of his Reform synagogue. “I consider myself religious and a cultural Jew,” he said. “We celebrate the holidays. We go to shul.” Jewish humor — everything from Groucho Marx to Woody Allen, The Three Stooges, even Looney Tunes cartoons “played a huge role in my house and my life,” he said.

Of Polish and Russian descent — his late step-grandmother was a survivor of Auschwitz — Adelstein did not become a bar mitzvah; the rabbi of his suburban Chicago synagogue banned b’nai mitzvot because they were “getting too ostentatious.” Adelstein said he’s considering pursuing an adult bar mitzvah, perhaps when his daughter Josephine, 4, becomes a bat mitzvah.

Adelstein also serves as a writing consultant on the series and wrote the fourth episode. In addition to acting, he is a musician and composer and wants to continue doing both. “I want to go where the good work is, work on stuff I care about,” he said. Travel is also on his to-do list. “We want to go to Israel, Italy, Greece, Sweden and Russia.”

“Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce” premieres Dec. 2 at 10 p.m. on Bravo.


On the CBS series “Madam Secretary,” Bebe Neuwirth plays the very capable Chief of Staff Nadine Tolliver, right-hand woman to the titular official (Téa Leoni). “What intrigued me about Nadine was her willingness, her desire, to be the person behind the power — the quiet support who elegantly and intelligently helps the person at the center of attention,” said Neuwirth, who loved the way the script “portrayed strong, intelligent women. There was nothing stereotypical about them.” 

Bebe Neuwirth in “Madam Secretary” Photo by David Giesbrecht/CBS

Although the Emmy (“Cheers”) and double-Tony Award winner (“Sweet Charity,” “Chicago”) wasn’t looking for a TV series, she was open to the idea, especially one that didn’t require her to leave New York, she said. 

Neuwirth grew up across the river in Princeton, N.J., in a non-observant family. “I’m not religious. I consider myself a cultural Jew. When I was very young, my family had seders and lit the Chanukah lights, my father reciting a prayer. But there was no discussion of religion in our home, I never went to temple and really didn’t know anything about it,” she said. Nevertheless, she added, “I identify unquestionably as a Jew. My husband is not Jewish. He, too, is not religious, so there was no problem when we planned our wedding.”

Neuwirth, who did consult the series’ State Department adviser for background, chose “to create a character defined by a personality and emotional life, rather than her job, although Nadine’s choice of work says, I believe, quite a lot about her,” Neuwirth said. Nadine makes reference to her Jewish ancestry in the sixth episode, when she toasts the memory of her grandfather, “Louis Grossman, who was killed at Auschwitz.”

With career highlights that range from TV’s iconic “Cheers,” to working with Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse on Broadway, to playing opposite Tom Selleck on “Blue Bloods,” Neuwirth isn’t planning her next step. “I’m not a strategist. I certainly dream about different ideas, but rarely act on them. The exception to that is when I create my cabaret shows.” Her latest, “Stories With Piano,” was recorded at the New York club 54 Below for a CD called “Stories … in NYC.” Both it and a studio record called “Porcelain,” produced by her husband, Chris Calkins, are available via iTunes. 

Neuwirth also keeps busy as a member of the board of trustees of The Actors Fund, for which she created The Dancers’ Resource, to help “professional dancers of all disciplines.”

Following the Nov. 30 episode, “Madam Secretary” will go on hiatus during December and return to CBS on Jan. 4 at 8 p.m.


“Friends” ended its network run 10 years ago, but Lisa Kudrow continues to thrive on cable television, simultaneously starring in two series, as a woefully inept shrink in “Web Therapy” on Showtime and as the has-been actress Valerie Cherish in HBO’s aptly titled revival of the 2005 series “The Comeback.”

Lisa Kudrow in “The Comeback” Photo by Colleen Hayes/HBO

“It’s nine years later and she’s not as much of a doormat. She’s a little crankier and less afraid of showing that,” said Kudrow, who missed playing Valerie “on a very personal level. I really enjoyed being someone for a period of time that just thought everything was OK.”

A Los Angeles native, Kudrow grew up in the ’70s aware of Jewish comedians, but said she can’t pinpoint a direct influence. “I recently saw a documentary about Jewish comedy and how well Jews complain, and it’s the source of their humor, but I don’t think that’s part of what I do. I do awkward,” she said. 

She found a bigger comedic source at her own dinner table. “When you’re the youngest one in the family, you’re absolutely not the funniest one in the room. But my family’s very funny,” Kudrow explained. “So I would steal their stuff and bring it to school and score.” 

“The Comeback” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.

“Web Therapy” airs Wednesdays at 11 p.m. on Showtime