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The Transparent Jewish History of Jeffrey Tambor

‘There’s Lear or there’s Maura,” Jeffrey Tambor told me. “I chose Maura.”

Maura is Maura (née Mort) Pfefferman, at the center of the Amazon Prime streaming series “Transparent.” In her late 60s, she reintroduces herself as transgender to her estranged wife and children — each of whom, to use a show business expression, has his or her own mishegas, or craziness.

The show, based on the personal experiences of its creator, Jill Soloway, whose father revealed himself to be transgender later in his life, is listed as a comedy. And while it has many laugh-out-loud moments, it’s also a story of familial love in all its forms.

Tambor, who just won his second consecutive Emmy Award for his performance in “Transparent,” has had a remarkable 40-plus year career in film and television. He was Garry Shandling’s sidekick, Hank Kingsley, in “The Larry Sanders Show” on HBO (earning four Emmy nominations) and George Bluth Sr. in “Arrested Development” (two more nominations). So, having already achieved so much, did he have any qualms about taking on so potentially controversial a role?

“Not one bit,” he told me during a telephone interview. “I knew that it was a great role and a great family. The writing was right on the mark, and the time couldn’t be more apt.”

Still he was amazed by the overwhelmingly positive reception the show received. “Yes, it was a surprise,” he told me. “I didn’t know the zeitgeist was there. I did not know the power of that revolution. We were like this arrow that got shot into the middle of this huge zeitgeist, and here we are, three seasons later.”

Tambor is a respected acting teacher, and I wondered how he approaches the role.

“There’s not a scene I really know how to play,” he told me. “There’s not a scene where I really know what it’s going to look like. But I never gnash my teeth on how to play it. What I did my gnash my teeth on is the responsibility of doing it right for Maura.”

Tambor, 72, grew up in a generation where anyone whose sexual orientation deviated from what was considered the norm hid in the closet. How is he able to relate to Maura?

“First, I can never be familiar with what it means to be transgender because I’m Cisgender,” Tambor said. “I lived and grew up in San Francisco. I did the theater and had a very liberal point of view. There was a very large gay and transgender population there. Still, the learning curve was very steep.”

That San Francisco upbringing included Hebrew School at Temple Beth Sholom, where he had his bar mitzvah. Despite the plethora of Jewish roles he’s played — including the head of Mossad and a long-term recurring role as a Jewish judge on “Hill Street Blues” — Tambor does not believe he has a Yiddishe punim, a Jewish face. “I think my grandma had a Yiddishe punim. I think my mom had a Yiddishe punim. But I think I have a Hungarian punim.”

Asked what part his Jewish heritage plays in his career, Tambor said: “It’s all of me. I carry all of that, and I have all my life. It’s part and parcel of me. Hank was Jewish. George was Jewish. I celebrate it all.”

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