Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

February 29, 2016 by

Have You Noticed These Images in “Transparent”?

Josh and Raquel in the empty mikveh.

Josh and Raquel in the empty mikveh.

“I didn’t want to throw you off with too much Jewiness on a first date.” This is Raquel, the rabbi in Jill Soloway’s series “Transparent,” telling her love interest, Josh Pfefferman, why she’s not wearing her yarmulke. It’s also the approach the writers take to the show. It has been described as “arguably the Jewiest television show ever,” but the “Jewiness” comes in gradually. The first few episodes portray the Pfeffermans as cultural Jews—discussing Jewish names, picking up their standing order at Canter’s Deli, donating old items to the “Hadassah League,” recalling a relative who died in Treblinka, and sprinkling a few Yiddish words into their English, like fakakta (shitty), keppie (head), and shaitel (wig).

But by the sixth episode, Jewish themes—some of them religious—come to drive the plot. We see a Shabbat dinner, complete with wine, challah, exchanges of “Shabbat shalom” and “Good Shabbos,” a no-cell phone rule, and a conversation about which tune should be used for lighting the Shabbat candles. We see a 13-year-old perform her Torah portion after her bat mitzvah is cancelled (Lech Lecha—the portion of Genesis about Abraham leaving home, a fitting symbol for the show’s theme of personal transitions). When a man dies, his body is wrapped in white shrouds and buried after the singing of El Malei Rachamim; the guests wash their hands before entering the shiva home, and the mirrors are covered. Season 2 includes a Jewish wedding and a Yom Kippur episode chock full of Jewish rituals—asking for forgiveness, tossing bread into a pond, and pounding their chests penitentially during the Al Chet prayer in synagogue. Characters reflexively kiss mezuzahs and discard cracked eggs with blood spots. Yiddish and Hebrew words become more prominent. And, in flashbacks to 1933, we see the Pfeffermans’ ancestors fleeing Berlin because of the Nazis’ rise to power.

Although it is unusual for so many Jewish practices to appear in one series, all of those I’ve mentioned so far seem to fit the Pfeffermans, a non-observant but somewhat Jewishly engaged family. The mezuzah kissing, blood spots, and tashlich are less probable, but they’re the kinds of traditions that Maura’s immigrant mother might have passed along to her children. One Jewish image, however, surprised me: the mikveh. In Episode 6, Rabbi Raquel is giving Josh a tour of her synagogue, and she points out the empty mikveh. Josh asks if he can get inside, and the two of them end up sitting in the mikveh talking about how Raquel’s eggs are getting old. After my initial surprise, I realized that the mikveh is the perfect symbol for “Transparent.” The show is about Judaism, femininity, sexuality, transparency, and transitions; the mikveh is where all of these intersect. When immersing in the mikveh, people must be totally naked, without even makeup or nail polish. Similarly, this show is about being vulnerable and transparent about one’s true self, even when this is difficult. The mikveh is like a womb, and emerging from it can feel like a rebirth, also a central theme in the show.

Josh’s niece’s “dream light” makes her and Josh appear under water.

Josh’s niece’s “dream light” makes her and Josh appear under water.

After this realization, I began seeing mikveh imagery elsewhere in the series: almost every episode has at least one scene where a character immerses in water—partly, fully, or metaphorically—at a time of personal transformation. The show’s title, I realized, is not just about a transgender parent and about being open and transparent. It’s also about transitions in one’s parenthood, relationships with parents, and life in general. 

In traditional Judaism, immersion in the mikveh marks transitions: some women visit the mikveh before their wedding and at the point in their menstrual cycle when they will resume sexual relations with their husbands; some men for ritual purification before Yom Kippur or Shabbat; as a requirement for conversion; even to make dishes kosher. As a non-Orthodox, religiously engaged woman, I’ve immersed in the mikveh five times: before my wedding, a few weeks after the births of each of my three children, and before my daughter’s bat mitzvah. The last visit was because my congregation, IKAR, has created a new tradition of having a mikveh celebration before each student’s bar/bat mitzvah. The classmates gather behind a curtain, sing songs, and give personal blessings as the bar/bat mitzvah child immerses. 

My immersions are part of a broader resurgence of the mikveh as a marker of transitions in non-Orthodox circles, spearheaded by community mikvaot (the Hebrew plural of mikveh) and mikveh projects like Boston’s Mayyim Hayyim and Immerse NYC. Leaders of this movement have compiled educational resources and ceremonies for many lifecycle events beyond weddings, conversions, and b’nai mitzvah. Some of these are connected to fertility, some to other life transitions: divorce, coming out, receiving news of exacerbation of illness, and, yes, gender transitions. 

Although the Pfeffermans socialize with many Jews and belong to a synagogue (apparently one with a defunct mikveh), they do not seem like the types who would schedule an appointment at a local mikveh to mark Mort’s transition to Maura. (Though maybe one of her daughters, or Rabbi Raquel, will suggest this in Season 3…) Instead, the show includes mikveh imagery in subtle, plot-appropriate ways: bathtubs, swimming pools, ponds, lakes, oceans, etc., often at times of transformation. On the evening that Josh decides to propose to his pregnant girlfriend, he is putting his niece to bed, and the girl’s dream light makes the room appear under water. After Sarah has sex with her ex-girlfriend, which leads to their leaving their spouses, Sarah says she feels like she’s “lying in a pool of water.” Maura says to Sarah’s ex-husband, who has not yet adjusted to Mort’s transition to Maura, “Baby, you need to get in this whirlpool or you need to get out of it.” Ali immerses in a hot tub at a Korean spa soon after beginning her first lesbian relationship. And, quite poignantly, all three adult Pfefferman children swim together in their childhood pool and talk about how they stopped using the pool as kids around the time Sarah got her period. 

Sarah admires Maura’s toenail polish as they dangle their feet in the swimming pool.

Sarah admires Maura’s toenail polish as they dangle their feet in the swimming pool.

These water scenes might just be water scenes if it were not for that conversation in the actual mikveh. Raquel points out the room to Josh: “This is ye old-timey mikveh. Trying to get the funding to renovate it. It used to be, I think, about life events—transforming.” The “old-timey” ritual for marking transformations is in need of renovation, perhaps a broader commentary on the role of Judaism for contemporary Jews. The Pfeffermans need someone like Rabbi Raquel to make Judaism relevant to their lives (in fact, some of the main characters end up pursuing more Judaic knowledge in Season 2, inspired by Raquel). Raquel later describes her job, “I just try to take really really really old shit that people have heard a million times, and I try to make it sound new.” Maybe this show can do that for the mikveh among non-Orthodox Jews. And just as Sarah’s non-Jewish girlfriend calls for cell-phone-free Friday-night dinners after reading about it in Real Simple, perhaps mikveh rituals can appeal to non-Jews too. 

“Transparent” is not universally loved – it is not pleasant to watch such narcissistic characters mess up their lives and the lives of others. But something about this show makes it compelling for me and many of my friends. Beyond the clever writing, naturalistic dialogue, impressive acting, and artistic cinematography, “Transparent” deals with issues of family relationships and personal transformation that are universal. If you have not yet immersed yourself in this series, I highly recommend it. If you find yourself drowning in too many episodes, just go with the flow. You may just be spiritually transformed. 


Sarah Bunin Benor is an Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. She is the author of Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism. She can be reached at sbenor@huc.edu.


  • Barbara Bresler

    Perhaps this is too obvious, but it occurs to me that this transformative element, water, is in most cases, transparent.

    • Sarah Benor

      Nice!