The Pfefferman Chronicles


A pet turtle that was lost for 30 years emerges from behind a wall on the third episode of the new season of “Transparent.” This shocks the Pfeffermans, who have all gathered to celebrate the birthday of Maura, their once patriarch named Mort, now their “Moppa.” Played by Jeffrey Tambor, she lets them know she prefers to be called “Mom.”

The third season, premiering this week on Amazon Prime Video, includes other revelations that emerge slowly about members of the Pfefferman clan, shading in their back stories. The show, which has won Emmy and Golden Globe awards, continues to show transgender lives up close, and also American Jewish life in a detailed light that’s remarkable for national television. Expect a mikveh scene, “Dayenu” at an unexpected moment, a reinvented Havdalah service and a cantor who joins the cast, making an insider’s joke about Birthright.

But it’s not just the Yiddish and Hebrew phrases and holiday celebrations that continue to make the show so Jewish — what Jill Soloway, the creator, executive producer, director and writer calls the most Jewish show on television — but the way Judaism is intricately woven into the plot and the characters’ sensibilities and history.

A scene from Season 3 of Transparent, now screening on Amazon. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“I never set out to expressly make a very Jewish show or a queer show,” Soloway told The Jewish Week in an interview at a press premiere along with other members of the cast in New York City earlier this month. “I tried to make sure it felt right to me. Would it be the right necklace [for Shelly Pfefferman] to wear? What would her condominium look like? It’s about authenticity.”

For religious questions related to the show, Soloway turns to Rabbi Susan Goldberg, who serves on the staff of Wilshire Temple in Los Angeles and previously was rabbi-in-residence for East Side Jews, a project that seems similar to the progressive spiritual collective Sarah Pfefferman creates with Rabbi Raquel this season. For cultural questions, Soloway jokes that she has generations of advisers.

In preparing for her role, Kathryn Hahn, who plays Rabbi Raquel, spent time with Rabbi Goldberg. “She has this amazing direct eye contact that felt like she was seeing all of me. I felt vulnerable and seen,” Hahn says, adding, “Eye contact has been my way in.” Indeed, she holds an interviewer’s gaze for several extra seconds, projecting a rabbinic manner.

“It always feels like coming home for me, when I come back to Jill’s set,” says Hahn, who is a Catholic and married to a Jew. “You can feel so seen. I’ve never felt more beautiful. You can be your whole self.”

“I’ve been able to discover a stillness in myself in Raquel,” she adds. Preparing for Passover, the rabbi walks in the woods, talking aloud in words that might become a sermon.

Amy Landecker, who plays Maura’s daughter Sarah, explains that this season, “all the characters now have a little more space, we have a little more breathing room in our storylines.” As for Sarah, “she thinks she’s doing her own spiritual exploration, but her own ego gets in the way.”

Jeffrey Tambor, who plays Maura, in a scene from Season 3 of Transparent. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

In the new season, Maura is looking more polished, considering gender confirmation surgery but admitting that she’s not happy yet. Maura’s ex and co-parent Sally Pfefferman, played by Judith Light, is finding her way to tell her story, while the three siblings stumble along in their new adventures, trying to define themselves and, in their ways, find meaning. Although family members aren’t always particularly sensitive to each other’s needs, they manage to show up for one another and support one another, and that’s impressive of them.

There are less flashbacks than in the earlier seasons, although one full episode goes back to 1958, revealing telling details about Maura’s and Shelly’s early lives, and about how they met in 1966. Viewers get to see many neighborhoods of Los Angeles, but might still wonder how these characters make their livings.

When it’s time for Tambor and Light to join my table of five journalists, they are kibitzing with each other, dropping Yiddish phrases, both pleased that the show highlights people who are older, Jewish, gay, lesbian and transgender, and not often seen on television. Tambor speaks of his efforts in getting the wardrobe and makeup correct — getting the outside right and then learning to inhabit the interior of Maura.

Light describes Tambor as “being Maura, not doing Maura. Jeffrey the actor walked in and became her.”

For Soloway, there are autobiographical roots to the story. She talks about the moment several years ago when she got the call that would be the “turning point in my life” — learning that her parent was transitioning. “I always had the feeling that there was a missing piece of the puzzle. I never really knew what it was. My first response was love and caring. I wanted my parent to feel loved and safe. What a brave move.

“I come from a gender queer family, a gender questioning family. It’s my birthright. I’m always thinking about gender,” she says.

“Both of my parents love the show. How could you not love this beautiful representation”? she asks, pointing to the family portrait of the Pfeffermans in an ad for the show, shown on an easel.

“I was ready to tell this story,” she says. “I’m making people like me feel safer in the world. When it happened, I was scared to tell my friends. I knew people who transitioned at 20 or 30, but at 70? I made the show to make the world a safer place.

“We’re making a painting, a piece of art, something to talk about,” she says.

About her own Jewish identity, Soloway says, “I’m Jewish. I think I’m very much like Sarah in Season 3. I’m part of East Side Jews, where we’re creating our own rituals. I’ve gotten more spiritual. I’m super excited for the High Holy Days.”

The Pfeffferman siblings in scene from Season 3 of Transparent, now screening on Amazon. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Eric Goldman, a film critic, professor of cinema at Yeshiva University and author of “The American Jewish Story Through Cinema,” says, “In ‘Transparent,’ Jill Soloway is unabashed in putting on television a Jewish world with which she clearly is totally comfortable. Gone are the days of “Sha shtil,” and “don’t make waves” and the ambivalence of previous generations of Jewish film and television artists. This all is very exciting and represents a new unambiguous Jewish identification by the entertainment media.”

“In front of the cameras and behind the scenes,” says Alexandra Billings, who plays Davina, a trans friend of Maura’s, “there are more trans people on that set than anywhere else in the history of Hollywood.”

Landecker says, “It’s great to play Sarah. I’m the luckiest woman in show business.” As for the open portrayal of sexuality, she says, “I did sex scenes working with a male director and didn’t want to do it again. Here, I know the final edit will be appropriate. It’s so nuanced and dynamic, so much more interesting than sex and nudity.”

For Bat Sheva Marcus, clinical director of Maze Women’s Sexual Health, this is one of those shows she has to watch, as her patients often bring it up.

“I really liked it. It’s heart-wrenching though. Hard to see it as comedy,” she says of the first two seasons. Once called an “Orthodox sex guru” by The New York Times, she notes, “There’s a lot of sex in it. Not a crazy amount, but it shows how large a role sex plays in people’s lives. I’m in the field so I see it all the time, but this is like taking the roof off the dollhouse, and seeing all those things going on that nobody is talking about. I don’t think it is unreal. They are packing more possibilities into a small segment of people.”

Marcus adds that she is also struck by the historical perspective the show provides, through flashbacks to earlier eras. “I love that. Every society thinks that they invented affairs, transgender issues, parents rejecting the sexual choices of their kids. But these are repeated patterns, not new ones, even if they just look a little different.”

“I think it also makes you sympathetic, less judgmental when you get to know characters. The show allows the viewers to give a little more space and breadth to people facing tough choices.”

“We write each other off in certain ways,” Tambor says. “It’s very important not to do so.”