'Transparent' Asserts That Israel Isn't Necessary for Jewish Identity

The latest season brings the Pfeffermans on a meaningful trip to the Holy Land, but unlike Conan O'Brien, the show's creators don't work for the country's public relations machine

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A still from season four of 'Transparent,' with stars Gaby Hoffmann and Amy Landecker, in Israel.
A still from season four of 'Transparent,' with stars Gaby Hoffmann and Amy Landecker, in Israel.Credit: Jennifer Clasen / Amazon / Sony
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

“Transparent,” Season 4, HOT VOD

I approached the fourth season of the American television series “Transparent” with great curiosity because its main arena is in Israel. This curiosity also was mixed with expectations for a certain amount of comfort from a sympathetic, anthropological view of Israel, which would give us further hope that we are not alone, that there are a few cool and creative Jews in America who think that Israel is a wonderful place, or at least a moving place – and if not moving, then at least interesting. And if not interesting, then historic and important.

In the first episodes, I was disappointed by the artificiality and carelessness of the characterizations. The ads for Moshe Pfefferman’s air-conditioning business look like a parody of movies from the 1980s, and the Palestinian recreation site near Ramallah looks like a vacation home in Wisconsin. I sneered a little at the didacticism and simplicity of how they dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the more the season progressed, the more I realized that I had fallen into the trap of my own expectations. The creators of “Transparent” were not interested in reflecting on Israel or saying anything about the country. The artificiality was intentional.

Transparent Season 4 - Official TrailerCredit: Transparent Season 4 - Official Trailer

Israel was just a means, not an end. The Pfeffermans are coming for a highly significant tour of the Holy Land. However, this is not the “real” Israel, but an image reflected through their eyes. That's how they can film the Dead Sea at some ocean and just paste in the desert landscape afterward. If the expectation is to feel a symbolic shared fate with the struggling Jewish characters, and through them, to see the cosmic importance of the State of Israel, then this isn't the right address. There is no Yiddishkeit here. Unlike Conan O'Brien's sycophantic visit or the splendid achievements that Israeli culture attributes to itself in the form of Gal Gadot, here Israel is definitely not the center of the world. And the insult particularly stings when it comes from Jews.

In fact, as far as the Pfeffermans are concerned, Israel is one big field of triggers. Somewhere in the background they are aware of the historical trauma, but what interests them is their own selfish problems, and not the bigger story.

As individuals who are engaged in an unceasing, obsessive attempt to understand themselves, to dismantle and reassemble their identities, it is not surprising that in the end, the conflict appears as a reflection of Ali Pfefferman's search for her gender identity. The rest of the family members mostly prefer not to get into it – maybe because it's not their problem.

It's possible to say that season four is also a blow below the belt for the Israeli Diaspora Affairs Ministry – and the view that Judaism can't exist without Israel. The creators of the show, who are probably not deliberately against the Disapora Ministry but who perhaps have a certain awareness of issue of Jewish American-Israeli relations, make it clear that the Pfeffermans’ Judaism need not pass through Israel in order to exist as a concrete identity. They are as Jewish as possible, but Maura Pfefferman makes it explicitly clear that she will not be returning to Israel.

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