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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.

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