Still from the musical finale of “Transparent” (Photo/Erin Simkin, courtesy Amazon Prime)
Still from the musical finale of “Transparent” (Photo/Erin Simkin, courtesy Amazon Prime)

Subversively Jewish to the last, ‘Transparent’ goes out with a song

The Amazon Prime series “Transparent” spent four seasons building a world around a Jewish L.A. family whose patriarch comes out as transgender. Its self-centered characters reimagined ritual, made many wrong decisions — equally tinted by a haze of weed and Jewish guilt — and ate a lot of bagels and deli meats.

Along the way, they created a national conversation about gender identity and transgender rights, and helped to shape today’s streaming environment by being one of two shows selected by Amazon for its first foray into creating entertainment.

So it’s no surprise that Season 5’s one and only episode, “Musicale Finale,” presents something fantastical and unique yet familiar — and the Jewiest thing yet. (Warning: This article includes light spoilers for the 100-minute episode, which will be available to stream on Amazon Prime on Sept. 27).

So how can “Transparent” — a show that addressed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, used Israel to advance spiritual character development, and featured bar mitzvahs, seders, mikvahs, rabbis, Havdalah, epigenetic Holocaust trauma and so much more — get even more Jewy?

By tackling Jewish cremation, performing a love song while taking the Torah out of the ark, and featuring a musical number about the Holocaust that explodes with the joy, color and energy of the “Aquarius” ending of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” For starters.

As many “Transparent” fans know, the catalyst for all other actions and reactions in the Pfefferman family has been parent Maura, who came out as trans in the 2014 pilot. But last year’s announcement that actor and San Francisco native Jeffrey Tambor (who famously told the orchestra “sheket b’vakasha” as they tried to play him off at the 2016 Emmys) would not be returning to the show after accusations of sexual harassment left only one option: “Maura is dead.”

The family reels in response — some fretting over funeral and inheritance logistics, others expressing deep pain or denial. The face of grief in “Transparent” is realistically multifaceted, prompting grand gestures and wild emotional swings from some, quiet introspection and thoughtfulness from others.

The Soloway siblings — Jill, the creator of the “Transparent” universe, and Faith, who wrote all of the songs for the finale (and who can be spied as “Shmuley the Uber driver” in the finale, and as Cantor Joy in two 2014 episodes) — have a particularly funny, sharp and irreverent quality that isn’t for everyone.

Judith Light’s tour de force performance in “Your Boundary Is My Trigger” features overbearing-mother lyrics so descriptive you can’t forget them even if you want to.

And in the final song, an attempt to establish joyous moments that are the opposite of the Holocaust, the Pfeffermans want “a celebration of the soul for this extermination Super Bowl” and urge the assembled to “take the concentration out of camps, concentrate on some song and dance.”

The imbalance between the lines’ shock value and their comedic value is jarring, and begs some questions: How funny does a punchline have to be to justify a setup that invokes concentration camps? And do these punchlines meet that mark? A viewer might understand and embrace the premise — the Holocaust is part of Jewish identity, but let’s move forward already — and still reject such provocative packaging.

If the mere thought of a comedic song about the Holocaust doth offend, “Transparent” was probably never for you. It always has been for the people who carry various forms of duality and feel pulled in multiple directions, whether it comes to gender identity, contemporary religious identity, feelings about family, connection to history or responsibility to the future.

While all the Pfeffermans have journeyed over the course of the show, Ari, who began the series as the rootless Ali, has matured the most and come the furthest. They now identify as non-binary, have studied in Israel and are thinking about becoming a rabbi. They remember what would have been their bat mitzvah Torah portion, Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27), which gives us the most affecting of the episode’s songs. “Run From Your Father’s House” is Ari’s journey song: By running from their father’s house to pursue their true path, Ari found true and deeply connected Jewish identity.

Leave the father’s house behind, the song promises, and “all of the families of the Earth shall bless themselves by you and when you get home you won’t be alone. I promise to not look away. And we get home we won’t be alone. Run from your father’s house.” Depart from tradition, go your own way and you’ll find like-minded companionship; redefine your concept of home, find your tribe and you will find belonging and blessing, as Ari does.

Maybe when it comes to dissecting this finale, this final chapter of something that has been so emotionally and socially challenging — and yes, Jewy — you have to experience all the emotions that come along with any mourning process.

Or, as Rabbi Raquel slinkily sings to the Pfefferman siblings in a Fosse-esque number at Camp Kohenet (because of course she does; this is “Transparent”), when it comes to grief, you have to sit in it.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a TV columnist for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.