Jewish lesbian gets her say in new Showtime series

In “The ‘L’ Word,” talented young writer Jenny Schecter moves to Los Angeles to live with her boyfriend. But she finds herself strangely unnerved by her lesbian neighbors and soon realizes that something has been missing from her life.

That’s one of the story arcs of the sure-to-be controversial Showtime Network series that premieres 10 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18. It is also, with some differences, the real-life story of Ilene Chaiken, the show’s creator and executive producer.

“There are bits and pieces of me in Jenny and one or two other characters I channel myself through,” Chaiken said in a telephone interview. “But neither of them is me. Jenny’s psychology is different, but her story is very much like mine.”

Chaiken was 24 when she came out — but that doesn’t mean that’s when she told the world she was gay. That’s when she told herself.

Until then, she’d led an unremarkable middle-class life. She grew up in a household “strongly identified as Jewish” in the suburbs of Philadelphia, dating, living with a boyfriend, knowing something was out of kilter, yet not understanding what.

“The experience (of discovering her sexual orientation) was painful and distressing, but also an incredible relief and revelation.”

She had a flirtation and affair with an older woman. “I think in some fundamental level, I knew it instantaneously. Probably, I knew it even before then. But it took me a good year to try to stop dating men,” she said.

Her parents — “good, informed, progressive, liberal Jews” — took the news pretty hard. Like Jenny, Chaiken had moved to Los Angeles. Her mother was visiting when Chaiken told her. “She wept and she called my father who yelled at me for upsetting my mother. They were unprepared, and they had all the emotional reactions that many parents do.”

But their relationship has improved greatly since then. “They got over it, incrementally. I came out to them when I was in a relationship. That was about 20 years ago, and I’m still in that relationship. Over the course of time, they came to accept my partner and now call her their daughter-in-law.”

That process took about a dozen years. “My parents came to terms with is when I told them Miggi [Hood, her partner] was pregnant. It was kind of a great moment. They told all their friends they were gong to be grandparents, and they said, ‘You didn’t even tell us she got married.’ That’s when my parents told them.

“The best thing about it is you don’t know how many friends said, ‘Did you know my son or daughter is gay? ‘ It was quite heart-warming.”

Chaiken and Hood have 8-year-old twins, who consider themselves half-Jewish. Although Chaiken does not belong to Los Angeles’ predominantly gay synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim, she is there regularly. “I now have many friends whose children are getting bar mitzvah. And when I go to temple and take part in that ritual, I always feel very connected and love to sing along. I still remember all the prayers.”

Ironically, it was Chaiken’s partner who suggested that their children become bar mitzvah. “She’d never been to [a bar mitzvah] before. She comes from a family steeped in the traditions of the Church of England, which she finds in many ways objectionable. She was stunned by how beautiful the bar mitzvah ceremony is.”

But Chaiken demurred, unless they were willing to make a full commitment to Judaism, which neither was.

Meanwhile the show — and her life — make for good television. Chaiken has a long relationship with Showtime. She’s written a couple of films for them, most notably “Dirty Pictures,” a dramatization of the Robert Mapplethorpe-Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center controversy. That film won the 2000 Golden Globe for best TV film.

But even before then, long before “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” even before the network’s “Queer as Folk,” Chaiken approached the network with her idea. She wanted to do “a lesbian ensemble that reflects my experiences. They didn’t turn me down, but they just didn’t buy it.”

It wasn’t until the Golden Globes four years ago that the network told her the program was a go. By then, “Queer as Folk” was on the air and doing well, which “definitely made a difference.”

It is a measure of how much mores have changed that Chaiken was able to attract top stars such as Jennifer Beals and Pam Grier to her production.

Ironically, while extremely explicit, ” The ‘L’ Word” is largely a middle-class show, about people attempting to discover who they are and find love and family.

Jenny Schecter is one of two Jewish characters in the show. “There is one other character I think is Jewish. I haven’t had to decide yet.”

Jenny’s Jewishness plays a role in two of the later episodes. “She meets someone who responds to the fact that she’s Jewish and likes her very much.”

Chaiken won’t reveal more — not even if that someone is a woman or a man.

Curt Schleier
Curt Schleier

Curt Schleier is a freelance writer and author who covers business and the arts for a variety of publications. Follow him on Twitter at @tvsoundoff.