Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

The Importance of Jewish Ritual in the Secular, Postmodern World of Transparent

Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

The Importance of Jewish Ritual in the Secular, Postmodern World of Transparent

Article excerpt

In the Amazon original television series Transparent (Jill Soloway, USA, 2014-), the secular Jewish Pfefferman family often struggles to find spiritual meaning in their contemporary California lives. One of the sites of their spiritual struggle and subsequent failure is Ali's aborted bat mitzvah. It is the subject of several episodes, including "Best New Girl" and "The Symbolic Exemplar" in season 1, and the focus of a dramatic truth-telling scene between the adult Ali (Gabby Hoffmann) and her father, Mort-turned-Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), in "Why Do We Cover the Mirrors ?" in Season 1. Yet to understand why Ali's bat mitzvah is so symbolically important, we have to analyze the Torah portion she was supposed to recite but didn't: It is Genesis 12, the narrative about Abraham (then called Abram) being told "lech lecha"-to leave his home and "go forth" with only the assurance of God: "Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father's house to the land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation."1 Thus begins Abram's metamorphosis from an individual to an Ivri (Hebrew for "other"), but also to the father of a great nation and holder of the communal covenant. Abram's path is not easy: He must overcome ten spiritual obstacles placed before his path. Once he passes these "tests," he will go from Abram to Abraham-the leader and father of a great nation. PirkeAvot (5:3) characterizes Abraham's experience this way: "With ten tests Abraham, our father, was tested, and he withstood them all."2

Thus Ali's bat mitzvah Torah portion-in the ritual she fails to enact-is a model for courage (going forth), faith (following the directives of an unknown, divine force), and resilience (the ability to withstand suffering, hardship, and disillusionment for a higher purpose). It is significant that this biblical metanarrative has been interpreted in personal as well as societal terms by such authors as the Ishbitzer Rebbe (Mordechai Yosef Leiner, 1801-1854), who interprets the phrase lech lecha as to "go forth to find your authentic self, to be who you are meant to be."3

Because Transparent is intended for a mainstream American television audience and analyzes several generations of the secular Pfeffermans living in contemporary Los Angeles, this continuing preoccupation with bat mitzvah has caught the attention of critics. In an essay on the television series, critic Josh Lambert asks, "Why all the bar and bat mitzvahs to begin with? Why should this groundbreaking, frankly activist show about a transgender woman's journey be so deeply Jewish?"4 Although critics praise the show and its gender activism, Debra Nussbaum Cohen admits that Transparents first season was "really Jewish. Extraordinarily, shockingly, disarmingly so. . . . [The] Jewiest show ever."5 Likewise, the New Yorkers television critic, Emily Nussbaum, described Transparent as the "the most Jewish show I've ever seen on TV."6 The critics' surprise is well founded. The Pfeffermans, after all, are a secular, assimilated Jewish family who, according to the latest Pew study on Jewish identity, wouldn't regularly celebrate the Sabbath and are not consistent synagogue-goers. Why then, Lambert wonders, all the emphasis on "Yom Kippur break fasts, feelings about rabbinic authority, preferences in wedding bands ?"7

Here Lambert asks the question on many critics' minds, as he speculates about the motivation ofJill Soloway, the creator, writer, executive producer, and director of the series: "Does the family's being Jewish really have anything to do with the transgender experience, any more than being Irish or Hindu or Ojibwe would ?" Lambert answers his own question by speculating on the parallels between the Jewish struggle for freedom and that of the LGBT community: "Jews were crucial, ardent supporters of sexual science and minority rights throughout the 20th century, for many reasons; often because, being Jewish, they understood that persecution or prejudicial treatment of any minority is actually a threat against all of us. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.