Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Transparent, Transsexuals and the Former Hasidic Jewish Transgender

Like millions of others, Jeffrey Tambor's win at the Golden Globes propelled me to watch the Amazon Prime Video original series "Transparent." My wife and I spent a few hours watching it Saturday night and then finished our "binge watching" of the series on Sunday night. My three main initial impressions of "Transparent" are: 1) What a powerful way to introduce us to the life of a transsexual; 2) This might be the most Jewish television show of all time; and, 3) This is important television as much as it is entertaining television.

In an October 2014 episode of HuffPost Live, Amy Landeker, one of the stars of the show said, "Transparent can actually save people's lives." And she's correct. Not only is it an enjoyable, smart and funny TV show, it's also educational in the sense that it brings transsexuals into the mainstream and shows just how human they really are rather than "other." The transitional and transformational life of the transsexual takes its toll on their family and friends as well. "Transparent" is the type of show that simply hasn't been done before. When I was a young child I remember hearing my parents talk about Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie." I never saw that movie, but my sense is that it wasn't the authentic portrayal of an adult transsexual like Jeffrey Tambor brilliantly portrays in "Transparent."

Transparent on Amazon Prime - Jewish family's experience with Transsexual Father

Jill Soloway, whose own father is a transsexual, has brilliantly created story lines that demonstrate the ups and downs in the life of a transsexual. The confusion, curiosity and embarrassment that one feels during this journey is overwhelming. As Tambor shows the viewers, the mere act of taking out one's driver's license to checkout at a store or walking into the restroom at the mall can be a terrifyingly complicated ordeal. This is something that religious leaders and those who work with teens have to recognize in the 21st century as transsexualism is becoming more common among teens.

I'd be remiss if I didn't point out how Jewy "Transparent" is. Not only are there a lot of Jewish words, phrases and concepts tossed around on the show, but the first season dealt with several esoteric Jewish rituals and themes. "Transparent" has a rabbinic consultant, Rabbi Susan Goldberg, and one of the show's writers, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, is the son of a Conservative rabbi. (Micah was also my camper at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin in 1997.) Kathryn Hahn does a wonderful job playing the family's rabbi (Rabbi Raquel) on the show and handles the personal life of a single, female rabbi in a genuine way. The Jewish details at every opportunity aren't missed -- there's the de rigueur paper towel and water pitcher on the front porch of the shiva house, the father singing the Shabbat kiddush to the tune of the Hanukkah candle blessings, a scene about fertility in a synagogue mikvah, and a bat mitzvah girl (who cancels her bat mitzvah) chanting from the Torah portion Lech Lecha (which is of course all about transition). It's no doubt that the Jewish Daily Forward dubbed "Transparent" the Jewiest show ever.

In an interview with The Jewish Daily Forward, Jill Soloway said about the show, "It is so Jewy. We got away with that much Jewiness? I can’t believe it. It’s more controversial to be Jewy than trans." She also noted that in the comments section of YouTube's series trailer, “There are more people saying horrible things about Jews than about trans people. It’s crazy.

"Transparent" has brought so much needed attention to the Transsexual community and their struggles. It has also caused other stories about transsexuals to be brought to the fore. One such story that I learned about yesterday is that of Jeffrey Smith. He was part of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem where he served as a spiritual leader to hundreds of students. The 63-year-old told the New York Post in an interview that, since he was 5-years-old, he really thought he was a girl. Now Jeffrey Smith has been living for the past two years as an Orthodox Jewish woman after undergoing sex-reassignment surgery.

As a man, Jeffrey Smith went to George Washington University in St. Louis for undergraduate studies and then while studying for a master’s degree at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1974, he embraced Chabad-Lubavitch. Smith began to look the part of a Chabad rabbi with the long beard and got married in 1973, but got divorced 18 years later. The article in the Post traces Smith's life after the divorce and leaving the Jewish faith for a few years to moving to the West Coast where he began dating men, and then at 50 Smith decided to become a woman. She started hormone-replacement therapy and legally changed her first name to Jessica and Yiscah in Hebrew ("to see").

Smith authored a memoir, "Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living" under the name Yiscah Smith and moved back to Israel in 2013. While no longer affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch community, she still teaches classes, attends synagogue and prays at the Kotel in Jerusalem -- in the women’s section. It's a remarkable story and I'm sure we'll continue to hear more stories like Smith's as transsexualism proceeds into the mainstream. There is certainly a seismic shift occurring (just two days ago on Sunday, Pope Francis had a meeting with a transsexual at the Vatican) and for the many individuals who have been both under the radar and living under duress, I am glad. In the name of kavod habriyot -- the Jewish concept of human dignity -- it is essential we embrace the transsexual and treat them with respect, love and understanding. Sometimes it just takes a television show to open our eyes.


Jan Wells said...

Wonderful blog. I will check out transparent. I love your humanity. All people should be treated with respect & dignity. I do my best not to sit in judgement. It is hard in our society just to find tolerance. I can't imagine how hard it must be to go to the bathroom, when your gender is not obvious. I remember an encounter with a woman in transition. I was a little surprised. We were in a "ladies" bathroom. I didn't have a issue with her. She was a woman. I did compliment her on her earrings (very pretty). I got some awareness that day that it took courage to use a facility that you were entitled to use. Most people take that for granted.

Roz Keith said...

Jason, thank you for writing such an important article about a topic that is near and dear to my heart. It also carries a lot of weight coming from a Rabbi who is part of the conservative movement.
I've noticed that journalists across all media are "mixing up" pronouns. It can be confusing even for families dealing with transgender individuals on a daily basis. Once you start talking about her transition, it would be appropriate to use the new name...rather than say "Jeffrey is now living..." Later in the article you switch over to female pronouns which is appropriate.
Also, a common mistake is using transgender and transsexual as nouns. These are adjectives. So, we want to be accepting and open to the trans* individuals and the trans* community. This is critical; using it as a noun is offensive to transgender individuals.
Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts in a positive way ...especially as it connects to Judaism.