Local artist tackles Jews and sex in ‘Transparent’ with Jeffrey Tambor

Jill Soloway, well known as Hollywood’s go-to scribe for tales of Jews and sex, has created as her latest effort the Amazon TV series “Transparent,” the story of a Jewish family whose patriarch has just revealed to his three grown children that he is transitioning to life as a woman. 

Decked out in a red polka-dotted mini-skirt, striped tights and brown boots, Soloway, 49, presided over a recent writers meeting like a nurturing mom, jumping up from time to time to write key phrases on a drawing board.  Scribbles on a nearby board included the words “Shabbat” and “sexercise.”  

“We’ve got to go back and figure out what’s happening at that shiva,” she said as the writers bounced around ideas for a crucial Jewish mourning sequence:  Should the show’s lesbian couple break up during the episode? Should one character hook up with another for some unexpected hanky panky? Will the entire family blame Maura, the father-turned-female, for not coming out sooner? Will one of Maura’s children complain that Maura never taught her to believe in God?

Just as Soloway is an unconventional executive producer — determined to run her TV show in a more feminine fashion than the “militaristic” style she said graces most television series — “Transparent” is groundbreaking on more than one front. The show depicts perhaps the first fully rounded transgender character ever on a TV series, in what in Soloway’s words is “The most Jewish show ever written.”

In the half-hour comedy-drama — whose pilot premiered in February and which returns with 10 new episodes on Sept. 26 — Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) is the father who has lived most of his life as a man and is now in the transition process of becoming a woman, Maura, late in life. Maura’s oldest daughter, Sarah (Amy Landecker), meanwhile, is married to a man but hooks up with an old college lesbian flame; Maura’s son Josh (Jay Duplass) is a secular record producer who falls in love with a rabbi named Raquel; and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), Maura’s depressed youngest daughter, starts resenting her parent for having allowed her to cancel her bat mitzvah when she was a teenager.    

After the writer’s meeting, Soloway kicked off her boots in her office, which, she said, looks, “like a teenaged girl’s bedroom,” with a queen-sized bed and tousled blankets, where she takes her daily nap. A scented candle and books by transgender people grace her bedside table, one of them written by a Jewish author, Joy Ladin, who has been an informal consultant on the show.   

As she settled into a chair beside her desk, Soloway munched on a cucumber and explained one reason she decided to sign on with Amazon: “They allow an auteur a lot of artistic freedom, which for me meant being brutally honest about Jewish stuff was part of the deal.

“The whole structure of this season is built upon Ali cancelling her bat mitzvah as a teenager because she didn’t believe in God — and why her dad let her,” Soloway said by way of example. “And there’s the scene where Josh and Rabbi Raquel kiss for the first time, which takes places in this decrepit old mikvah building. That gives us a chance to talk about why Judaism is so obsessed with binaries:  male and female, clean and unclean, kosher and unkosher. And there’s constant talk of Maura’s tante Gittel, who was gender queer [someone who resists categorizing their gender identity] and died in Treblinka.”

In the shiva episode, titled “Why Do We Cover the Mirrors?” Soloway gets to do all her jokes about Jews and food. During the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, one character whispers to her daughter, “Did you order the coleslaw — both kinds?” 

“We also ask a lot of questions about what it means to mourn, and to focus on the [grieving] instead of how other people see you,” Soloway said. “People ask whether this show is a comedy or a drama, but I actually think it’s a spiritual, religious journey with a lot of humor and a lot of [angst],” she added.  “Things that get questioned through a spiritual lens include abortion, porn culture, cheating and lying — everything.”

Spiritual as well as sexual issues have become something of a specialty for Soloway (“Six Feet Under,” “United States of Tara”), who grew up in a secular Jewish home in Chicago. The change came when she began observing aspects of Shabbat after attending a 2005 summit sponsored by Reboot, a national nonprofit that helps American Jews recreate tradition in contemporary ways. Not long thereafter, she co-founded the nontraditional spiritual group East Side Jews to further Reboot’s work in Los Angeles.

Her Jewish awakening inevitably found its way into her work. Soloway’s 2005 memoir, “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants,” has a chapter titled “Why Jews Go to the Bathroom with the Door Open” — which she had hoped would be the book’s title before her editors nixed it.  

As a writer and an executive producer on HBO’s mortuary drama “Six Feet Under,” she created a Reform rabbi character whose congregant’s boyfriend has died as a result of erotic asphyxiation.

Soloway’s 2013 feature film debut, “Afternoon Delight,” revolves around a bored Jewish housewife who rocks her marriage when she takes a stripper into their Silver Lake home.

These days, Soloway is deeply involved in a meditation workshop, with Rabbi Mordecai Finley, to help prepare participants for the High Holy Days:  “It’s using a sort of spiritual psychology to look upon the ego self with the higher self,” she explained. “For me, that means I’m not led by my emotions; my anger, anxieties or fears.”

As a primary consultant for Jewish matters on “Transparent,” Soloway turned to Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and East Side Jews, who met often with the show’s writers and even helped pick the parsha for Ali’s cancelled bat mitzvah. Goldberg also advised the staff about such issues as taharah, the traditional preparation of the human body for burial; the mikvah “as a place being reclaimed by women for transitioning into a new state of being,” Goldberg said; and how Rabbi Raquel might feel about dating the non-religious Josh. “We’ve had a lot of dialogue about whether or not it would intimidate or scare him if Raquel were to wear her yarmulke on a [date],” Goldberg said.

“Jill brings just a tremendous creativity to thinking about Jewish life and ritual in Los Angeles, and she brings that same energy to the Jewish themes that emerge organically on her show,” Goldberg added.

It was a profound familial revelation, for Soloway, that served as the direct impetus for “Transparent” three years ago, when her own father, a psychiatrist, telephoned to say that he was transitioning to life as a woman.  

“My first response was to tell my parent how proud I was of them,” she wrote in an email, using “them” to refer to her father and his transitioning self. “In some ways, I felt like their parent. I just wanted them to know they were loved unconditionally and safe.” In her email, Soloway also noted “I was immediately aware that everything was about to change.”

The show explores the complex feelings experienced by children of transgender people in general: “What it would mean for Dad to ‘die’ but a new person to be born in their place,” Soloway said by way of example. “Not a lot of people transition late in life, in their 60s or 70s, but there is a mourning period where you have to say goodbye to the dad and then get to know this new person, this woman. And the show goes to that question exactly.”

Soloway’s two transgender staff consultants have helped her to explore how the show might spotlight the variety of individuals who fall under what she calls the “trans-brella:” Those who are medically or socially transitioning, cross-dressers or drag queens, among others.

In creating “Transparent,” Soloway was also highly influenced by Lena Dunham’s zeigeisty HBO hit, “Girls”: “I was jealous that Lena had her own show on the air, and that I hadn’t figured out how to do that,” she said. “And I was envious of what was her very obvious artistic entitlement to her own voice and her own right to be seen and heard. I had been trying to fit my voice into what I thought Hollywood would buy, and I was compromising left and right to get something sold.”

Soloway made “Afternoon Delight” as a way of revealing her own voice to television executives (she calls it “fun-comfortable”); she was rewarded for her effort when Amazon agreed to immediately put her “Transparent” pilot into production last year. After the pilot earned positive reviews, media buzz and audience support in February, the studio ordered a full season of the show, all of which will be available on Amazon Prime starting Sept. 26.

Since my own last name is Pfefferman, I had to ask, why did Soloway decide to name “Transparent’s” fictional family “Pfefferman?” She laughed and said that the clan was originally named for one of the show’s writers, whose surname is Fitzerman; when he changed his mind about allowing her to use it, she wanted “to think up another three-syllable name that began with an F-sound and sounded Jewish.” Pfefferman just popped into her mind: “I probably grabbed it knowing you,” she said.

None of the fictional Pfeffermans fall into the familiar tropes of the typical half-hour comedy character. “My work privileges the Other, with a capital “O,” meaning all kinds of other — Jewish, trans, gay, unattractive, weird, freaky, outsider, different, f—-d up,” she said. 

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