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5 Questions with Rabbi Susan Goldberg, consultant for Transparent

Winner of the recent Golden Globe award for best comedic television series, Transparent revolves around the Pfefferman family (played beautifully by Gaby Hoffmann, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass and Judith Light) coming to terms with their patriarch Mort (multiple award winner Jeffrey Tambor) revealing himself as transgender. Transparent is one of our favorite television shows so we were very excited to speak with Rabbi Susan Goldberg, consultant to the show, prior to her presentation of four handpicked episodes at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

Scene Creek: How did you first get involved with the show Transparent?

Rabbi Susan Goldberg: Well the creator of the show, Jill Soloway, is a friend and also someone who is a part of the Jewish community that I am a part of. In addition to Jill, the other writers on the show were also people that I knew from the Jewish community and also the neighborhood that we all live in. So as the show was being formed, Jill’s process is very collaborative so when there are pieces that she thinks, “Oh this person, we should talk to them at that”, she asks them to be a part of her process. She has transgender consultants too. There are a lot of Jewish aspects to the show so when things would come up we would talk about them-either Jill or her sister Faith. It was very organic and evolved. Then they said, “You know what you’re doing-it’s a consultant.”

SC: What sort of input have you given (Transparent creator) Jill Soloway? 

SG: There are different kinds of things really. The writers are also very knowledgeable with Judaism but sometimes the information is deepening. We did some bible studies with one of the writers to help him. I helped with the sermon that the character Rabbi Raquel (played by Kathryn Hahn) delivered and helped Kathryn to embody that character. So she shadowed me and we spent time talking, studying in services, so she would feel comfortable in the role. She ended up taking on some of my mannerisms, which was interesting to observe. I would say that her energy and approach is based on me. I’m married with kids and a big part of her character is that she’s single and looking to be in a relationship. So the character is definitely based on me and also distinctly her own creation.

And then sometimes there were technical aspects, such as “we need this Torah portion around this time of year” or “we need to get the young Ali character to get tutored in her bat mitzvah portion”.

SC: Going over your topics of discussion for tonight’s event, can you talk a little about “the spiritual journey of the characters of Transparent and of the show as a whole”?

SG: That’s the broader conversation. This journey that the character Maura is taking, initially when people hear about the show they think it’s only that journey, but really every character is going through a journey and reflection. Maura has been on the journey for a long time but when she takes the step of sharing her journey with them and bringing them in to the truth of her life, it opens up their journeys as well. Some of the spiritual themes that we look at is of being in the wilderness. You know most of the Torah happens in the wilderness. It’s not the big epiphanies. Yes there’s a leaving of Egypt but after that there’s a lot of time in the wilderness. The whole rest of the Torah is in the wilderness. That idea that you might have a moment of coming out of revelation and some aspect of yourself and then it’s the rest of the journey. It’s not only an epiphany. So that idea and there’s also a real throughline of using the Parsha (Bible portion) Lech Lecha where Avram and Sarah, but the communication from G-D is to Avram, to go on a journey. If you look at the Hebrew it says “go to yourself in this journey”. And it wasn’t a coincidence that that was the portion that young Ali is chanting. And It’s not a coincidence that that bat mitzvah on that particular journey weekend is canceled for a whole complicated set of reasons. But a lot of it was as Mort was wanting to become Maura and the first steps of trying that on and that camp happened on the same weekend. So that idea of one character not getting her chance to claim her young womanhood as another character is claiming hers. So the Lech Lecha and the wilderness were both symbolism around that journey.

SC: You’ve said in past interviews that the trans themes and Jewish themes are so intricately interwoven on the show. Can you elaborate on that? 

SG: One of the greatest gifts that the trans community gives us all is the modeling of how to take risks and to come to a deeper truth of who you are. I think all of us are on that journey that I spoke of earlier. You can see on the show that every one of the characters are struggling to do that. The tremendous risks of being a trans person-that of total financial loss, risk of total rejection by your family, risk of total ostracization from society. Those high stakes, the move to being your true self is just something all of us can really learn so much from.

SC:  Can you tell us anything about the upcoming season of the show?

SG: Oh it’s going to be good! I know a lot of people want to know if Rabbi Raquel is coming back and she is! There are some interesting fantasy dream sequences. It’ll continue on the journey of each of the characters.

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival presents four episodes of the award-winning show Transparent followed by an in-depth discussion by Rabbi Susan Goldberg on Saturday May 9th at 9pm at Canada Square in Toronto. The Toronto Jewish Film Festival runs until May 10th, 2015. For further information and to purchase tickets please visit tjff.com. Season one of Transparent is currently streaming on Shomi Canada and is available on Amazon Studios for residents of the United States.

Leora Heilbronn

Leora Heilbronn is a Toronto based film aficionado who has a weakness for musicals and violent action flicks. She can often be spotted reading a wide range of literature or listening to show tunes.