Levi Teitel: Being "Transparent" in social justice

Wednesday, October 18, 2017 - 4:25pm

In the finale of the fourth season of Amazon’s “Transparent,” the Pfefferman family goes aboard a cruise ship during the Jewish holiday of Passover. Traditionally during Passover seders, Jews recite the religious platitude “next year in Jerusalem” to mark the thousand-year longing to return to the land of Israel. Perhaps not coincidentally, season four of “Transparent” does just that: Maura, the matriarch and protagonist of the series, presents a lecture on gender, Judaism and the Cold War in Tel Aviv with daughter Ali in tow.

As gender and Judaism continue to be preeminent themes in “Transparent,” this season the characters also struggle to balance tradition and evolving mores. The new season, released in the midst of the High Holy Days, is fitting for inner observation of collective and individual behavior. In a time of major social upheaval, “Transparent” helps us deconstruct the walls that divide us.

In the era of identity politics, what exactly does it mean to be Jewish? How do different social positions either reinforce or nullify certain axes of oppression? These relevant questions reveal the nexus of spirituality, political power and social consciousness. As students come to grips with mounting anti-Semitism, racism and Islamophobia on college campuses, such moral and emotional predicaments become even more pressing. 

Against the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict, these complexities illustrate how the Pfeffermans react to these schisms ingrained in their psyches. First, let me explain the history necessary to understand this season. In “Land and Power,” Anita Shapira describes the paradigmatic shift in Zionist art and literature during the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. After hundreds of years of persecution and marginalization, Zionist leaders forged a new mythology and an archetype to reimagine Jewishness. The “new Jew” was a male, muscular, strong-willed individual who contributed productively to the national community. This stood in opposition to the diasporic Jew: weak, dependent and emasculate.

As Shapira notes, what marked men passing from the diaspora to the Israeli community in literary texts was his integration with the kibbutz, a space where hard work and collectivism shaped his milieu. The same representation of gender and masculinity in the diaspora and national Jewish communities still plays out in the mythologies of mass culture today, as demonstrated in “Transparent.”

Jill Soloway, the creator of “Transparent,” both challenges and feeds into this overplayed mythology. Soloway makes viewers question the histories and emotions that bind humans together. Borders and binarisms that separate — whether they are psychological or physical — are inconsequential insofar as they uphold the existing structure and authority that first erected them. How entrenched these separations are is irrespective of the fact that they once were manufactured. 

By moving to Israel, Moshe, Maura’s long-lost father, was able to reclaim his masculinity. Juxtaposed alongside the non-Israeli branch of the Pfefferman family, American Jewish masculinity operates in a very different way. When the family’s Israeli security detail cajoles Maura’s son Josh into shooting a gun — an object so ubiquitous in Israel — for the very first time, he nearly shoots his mother. This is a sign of his personal deficiencies and insecurities, both a result of his disorienting upbringing.

However, the most nuanced and provoking representation of Jewish and gender identities this season comes from Ali, the youngest of Maura’s three children. Ali embodies the growing young Jewish sentiment that questions the legitimacy of the establishment.

Ali’s gender-bending performance at the Western Wall is one such example this season. Ali’s transgression is indicative of a larger attitude of alienation and inquisitiveness. Struggling with what it means to simultaneously act independently and belong to a larger community is a quandary not unique to Ali, but reflective of where many Jews stand today. Faced with representational and spiritual exclusion, Jews are increasingly creating alternative community spaces. College students specifically are forging alliances with other faith communities for mutual cultural understanding and solidarity.

Between family in Tel Aviv and friends in Ramallah, Palestine, Ali learns about politics from a different vantage point. Ali’s political realization coincides with another revelation — that of nonconforming to gender. Both Jews and Muslims claim the Temple Mount — one of the most contested sites of the conflict —as theirs for religious significance. As Ali scoffs at the comparatively smaller portion women are allotted at the Western Wall, they covertly put on a yarmulke and walk over to the men’s section. Their persistent questioning of the status quo impels a dialectic negotiating between multiple identities: woman, nonbinary, Jewish, American, ally.

Soloway, who also came out as nonbinary this summer, views the political ecology of this season through the lens of intersectionality. As they recently explained to Vulture, “One of the meaning (sic) of intersectionality is that even if I wanted to choose between my queerness and my Jewishness, I wouldn’t, I couldn’t.” Placing the friction brought upon gender identity issues alongside this more-than-70-year sociopolitical context begs the question: How did we arrive at this moment?

During the Jewish High Holy Days, the inclination for introspection summons feelings of remorse and improvement. Coming together as a community is integral to understanding how to put the concerns and needs of others in mind. Reaching an equilibrium helps us move beyond rigid preconceptions and see things for what they truly are, not as what they should be.

While issues of social injustice maintain their place within the public’s consciousness, college students must utilize their position to reinvigorate modes of critical inquiry. It needn’t be obligatory for everyone to be gender studies scholars like Maura and Ali to engage in the discourse surrounding social issues. To recognize one’s place as an individual within a larger community is enough to conceptualize how close we actually are.

Levi Teitel can be reached at lateitel@umich.edu.