Donate to RNS

Can Israel be any more ‘Transparent’?

"Transparent" goes to Israel. But, which Israel does it portray?

The cast of

(RNS) — Warning to fans of the Amazon series “Transparent.”

Spoiler alerts coming.

“Transparent,” created by Jill Soloway, is the story of the Pfefferman family. Its major focus is on the father — Maura, nee Mort – who has made a late life decision to live as a woman. The show examines the details of his transition, and focuses on his relationships with his ex-wife, Shelly, and his three children —  Josh, Sarah, and Allie.

“Transparent” is a remarkably “Jewish” show. It is not only that the Pfeffermans are Jewish. For a while, Josh, the son, was romantically involved with a rabbi (the winner of the new Academy Award category — “Best Portrayal of a Rabbi”).

The show examines the family’s history in pre-Nazi Germany, complete with encounters with the famous sexologist, Magnus Hirschfield. The scenes in Germany foreshadow the various gender struggles that the family, two generations later, will experience in America.

In this season, Maura goes to Israel, to give a paper on gender, and brings Ali with along for the ride. The rest of the family comes to join them. The season explores their experiences in Israel.

Spoiler alert: Maura discovers that her estranged father is alive, and well, living in Israel as a wealthy air conditioning magnate.

Well, not really Israel. While some stock footage was shot in Israel, southern California plays the part of Israel. If there should ever be an Academy Award category for Best Portrayal of a Foreign City, Malibu would clearly win for its role as Caesarea.

So, if we were going to examine this season of “Transparent” as a novel about the Jewish relationship to Israel, how would it fare?

Only fair.

“Transparent” shows us an Israel that most American Jews would rather not see – largely, because it is a distortion of the deep nuances of Israeli life.

Take the first scene in Israel — when Maura and Ali arrive at Ben Gurion Airport. They drop to the ground to offer thanks for being in Israel.

And, wouldn’t you know it — a couple of hareidi, black hat Jews, run them over with their luggage. The haredim are oblivious to Maura and Allie. It is as if they are not even there.

To tell you the truth: there are times when I, as a non-Orthodox Jew in Israel, have felt invisible to many of my brothers and sisters to my religious right. And, yes – the haredim can be extremely aggressive.

But, getting run over by their luggage at the airport? Does that really happen?

Call me old-fashioned, but I winced. Amazon is available to everyone, regardless of religion and ethnicity — and not all of them sympathetic to Jews in the first place.

I am not enthusiastic about viewers getting that kind of image of pious Jews. Because the visual image of pious Jews is still an image of Jews. It is an invitation to contempt. It is not, as my grandmother would have said, good for the Jews.

Ali connects with a friend. The friend, who is African, refuses to even have a drink with Ali at a hotel in Jerusalem. She doesn’t want to spend any money in Israel. Welcome to BDS, “Transparent” style.

The friend takes Ali on a trip to Ramallah. She joins a bunch of Palestinian and leftist Israelis at a farm. They have a scrumptious dinner.

Except, that meal comes with a side order of deep, passionate anti-Israel rhetoric. The criticisms of Israeli policies come, fast and furious.

Does that scene portray a reality? Of course.

But, a more realistic version would have included some interpretation of the Israeli narrative.

But, there is none.

“Transparent” shows us checkpoints, but with no explanation as to why they exist. There is, in fact, no credible interpretation of Israel’s reality at all — and when an interpretation is attempted, it emerges from an Israeli guard on the bus, who comes complete out of Israeli macho central casting, and who insists on teaching Josh how to fire a gun.

Let me be fair. I think the anti-Israel stuff plays only a bit part in “Transparent.” It exists, mainly, as a way of showing us how emotionally needy and naïve Ali really is, and how gullible she is for any kind of ideology that might come her way.

And the sad part? Most young American Jews of her age would be as incapable of answering radical leftist rhetoric on Israel as she is.

Does “Transparent” redeem its dark vision of the Jewish State?

Yes – but in a way that might surprise you.

Spoiler alert #2.

In the final episode of the season, Ali decides to stay in Israel.

This is about something that is happening here, for me. I need to do something. There have been moments here when I have felt more like myself than I ever have, and I need to feel more of that. I’m going back to the farm [outside Ramallah] where my friends are….

This scene moved me, greatly – even though I realize that it was that farm outside of Ramallah, and the anti-Israel activists, that was drawing Ali.

It moved me, because it is a Zionist scene, even despite itself. It speaks of the transformation that Israel represents. The whole purpose of Zionism was so that the Jew would feel more “like myself than I ever have.” The whole purpose of Zionism was for the Jew to be more fully – a Jew.

In the words of the old Zionist folk song: “We have come to the Land – to build, and to be re-built by it.”

By the end of this season, “Transparent” has become, well, a Zionist text. It is a text that we should learn, and struggle with, and simply enjoy for what it is.

Damn good television.