Jill Soloway on Jews and ‘Transparent’
There’s a scene in the upcoming third season of Transparent—Jill Soloway’s hit show on Amazon about a father’s transgender transition and its effect on his family—where daughter Sarah Pfefferman is bound and getting flogged by a dominatrix. But Sarah is bored, distracted by her own neurotic train of thought.
“You know there’s this whole Jewish concept that if you do charity work you’re not supposed to tell anyone about it cuz if you tell anyone it voids the work,” Sarah says, the camera on her face in the vise, a whipping sound in the background. “It’s more about ego than charity…. If that’s true I haven’t done a single charitable action in my entire life.”
It’s typical Soloway: so, so irreverent and so, so Jewish at the same time.
But that’s Transparent, for you—”The most Jewish show on television,” says Soloway, the show’s writer and director. On September 18, Soloway, who based the series on her own experience—her father had transitioned to a woman, was awarded the 2016 Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series for Transparent. Actor Jeffrey Tambor, who plays father Mort Pfefferman, now Maura, also won an Emmy, for Best Actor in a Comedy Series. And the show—its third season premieres on September 23—won a 2016 Golden Globe award for best television series.
“I’ve always wanted to be part of a movement,” said Soloway in her Emmy-acceptance speech. “This TV show allows me to take my dreams about unlikable Jewish people, queer folk, trans folk and make them heroes. Thank you to the trans community for your lived lives.”
This season Sarah—played by Amy Landecker—gets kicked off the synagogue board and starts an organization called Hineni with brother Joshie’s ex-fiancée, Rabbi Raquel Fein. “Hilarity ensues: They gather in their kids’ school gymnasium and try to reinvent havdalah,” Soloway, 50, says in a recent interview with Hadassah Magazine. “Just like ‘East Side Jews,’” she adds, referring to the community of L.A. Jews—“An irreverent, upstart, nondenominational collective” Soloway founded 10 years ago.
The new season also has Rabbi Raquel jogging in the woods, with her voiceover discussing themes of redemption. “Each season has one big Jewish holiday in the center,” Soloway explains. The first was Shabbat, the second was the High Holidays and, this time, it revolves around Passover—“Seder stuff, liberation…the whole season’s a Hagaddah, if you will.” Soloway can’t help but joke: “Season 4 will be about Succot, by Season 8 we’ll be big into Lag B’omer, I guess, and season 11, Shemini Atzeret.”
Where does she get all her Jewish knowledge?
Soloway has three rabbinical advisors. Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Wilshire Boulevard Temple serves as a consultant for the show. “She comes in and sometimes we do Torah study,” Soloway says.
She also speaks daily to New York-based Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, “a God-optional patriarchy-toppling Jewish modern mind. There’s a mandate among religious and spiritual thinkers to be thinking about the binary, the gendered, the feminist, the goddess, and Amichai reminds me of that every day.”
Her own personal rabbi, Mordecai Finley, of Ohr HaTorah synagogue in Los Angeles, “uses Torah as a way to understand brokenness,” she says. “He defines God as an energy hovering between love, justice, truth and beauty—somewhere between those four qualities is our search for spirituality.” That exact quote is also uttered by the new charismatic cantor working with Rabbi Raquel.
Kathryn Hahn, who plays Rabbi Raquel, is starring on another Soloway show: I Love Dick, which has been picked up for fall 2017; the pilot is available on Amazon. It’s based on the seminal feminist 1997 memoir/novel about a married couple obsessed with the same professor. In Soloway’s hands, the husband here is a Holocaust scholar (“there’s something afoot about the Holocaust,” she tells me wryly) and Hahn, his wife, is a lost artist who falls for the self-involved “Dick” (Kevin Bacon).
Although the couple is Jewish, I Love Dick is set in the very un-Jewish Marfa, Texas. Yet in Soloway’s mind, Transparent and I Love Dick are “brother and sister” shows. “When [Hahn] gets ejected from Transparent she goes to an alternate universe [of I Love Dick.] The shows are in conversation with each other,” Soloway explains.
Both shows have at their center a bevy of obsessive, self-involved Jews with “inappropriate ideas about sex and life,” Soloway once said.
Soloway’s formula has clearly struck a nerve. Not only has Transparent won numerous accolades, members of the tribe are also big fans.
“The Jews love the show,” she says, especially the ones of her parents’ generation who adore Shelly, the ex-wife and mother played by Judith Light, and Maura. “They think: ‘This is a couple I know.’”
And they’re very vocal in their support and fandom. “I get ideas from Jews for sure,” Soloway says. “I have a lifetime of ideas from Jews.”