The lecture “Jews and Other Others: Transparent and Remaking Jewish Identities” was given by Professor Jonathan Freedman of the University of Michigan last Wednesday. The talk, which was held in conjunction with “Bad Jews”, focused on the Amazon.com series “Transparent” and the modern media’s role in the remaking of the traditional concept of “Jewishness.”
The show “Transparent” follows a retired UCLA history professor who decides to transition from male to female and his relationship with his Jewish family. Despite the specificity of the groups featured in the series, Freedman sees the struggle for identity as one crucial to every individual in our modern society.
“There is a sense among my students of entering a world where everything is up for grabs. All the old certainties are questionable. Nobody knows what the future will bring…You guys are all in transition,” Freedman said.
In his lecture, Freedman discussed how “Transparent” illustrated “Jewishness” through its fragmented depiction of different characters’ lives and their relationship to their Jewish identity.
Historically, Jews were wanderers and despite their attempts to assimilate to the culture of their host country, this rootlessness caused a number of catastrophes like the Holocaust. There have also been many historical links to Jewish men being thought of as “womanly men” with strong feminine natures, Freedman said.
While “Transparent” brings to light a number of questions about Jewish and trans identities, Freedman also sees the plotline as a practical guide.
“There’s also a yearning for some type of meaning or order that will make sense of it all. And that, finally, is what the characters in the show are doing,” Freedman said. “They’re repellent, greedy, and narcissistic but they’re all looking for something and so are you.”
Kalamazoo College Professor Jeffrey Haus, the Director of the Jewish Studies Program, invited Freedman to campus to provide context for the campus production of “Bad Jews”. The play also discusses the issues of group identification in both a specifically Jewish sense as well as in a broader context.
“The idea of the play is about what it means to be Jewish. But you can really take the adjective Jewish and apply this to any ethnic or minority or gender group. And you can pose the question: how are you a member of group X?” Haus said.
The lecture also provided a cultural context and awareness for “Bad Jews”.
“It’s about the contemporary American Jewish experience. But most of the students at Kalamazoo College are not Jewish, which is exactly why we should be doing this play,” said Ed Menta, the play’s director.