EXCLUSIVE: The Soloway Sisters: Are Their Boundaries Your Triggers?
Growing up in the 1970s in a lower-middle-class liberal Jewish family in Brooklyn, I lived in an integrated Mitchell Lama building and went to an integrated local school. I also went to protests, singing “We Shall Overcome” with Pete Seeger at the South Street Seaport; to me, that was part of being Jewish. It was explained to me that as Jews, we fight for others’ rights.
My mom wrote musical theater and put on plays in our building’s community room. The casting was diverse, though gay men tended to be favored.
When I was 10 and performed in “Fiddler on the Roof” at camp, I asked my mom how a parent could turn his back on his own daughter, as Tevye does, because she falls in love with a Cossack. “It was a different time,” my mom said.
I grew up going to churches more often than I went to synagogues. “Go explore,” my mom would say, and I did, mostly at my best friend’s black church. I even sang in a church choir. I had the cool mom my friends could smoke in front of. When she accidentally walked in during a sleepover to find me naked in bed with two other girls from sixth grade, she quickly shut the door, saying, “Whoopsie!” When she came home to find my sister’s long hair scattered all over the floor, me with a pair of scissors, and my newly scalped 12-year-old sister proudly proclaiming that she was now a skinhead and into punk just like I was, my mom tipped her head and said, “Looks cute.”
When I was 13 my parents got divorced and my mother started placing dating ads. Boyfriends sometimes moved in; she opened our home to recovering addicts and alcoholics, even to a murderer who had served time.
“It’s a mitzvah…,” she’d explain. “We don’t just turn our back.”
But then there was the night she came home disgusted by “the sickie” who dared to ask her to dress him up in her clothing.
“Didn’t have the balls to admit he was a feygele!” she said, spitting in disgust. Jews could be gay, but this was being a sickie. That’s not for us. No mitzvah for them.
When I was 11, we went on a trip to London. I had a Beatles haircut; everyone called me “lad” and I never corrected them once. It was not something I would ever admit, but I strutted with a boyish swagger of pure joy, feeling free under the identity of “lad.” But it passed with a blip. By 13, my pubescent body betrayed me. When my mom went out on a date, from the medicine cabinet I fished out the discolored stretched-out elastic bandage used for all my childhood sprains. I took off my shirt and attempted to bind my chest to re-create that 11-year-old lad. No matter how I wrapped, my chest would not flatten; skin spilled over. It wasn’t just being a chubby girl that made a physical male identity — one I knew I had within me — impossible. I understood that dressing as what you are not was not what you were supposed to do —it was just okay for a little kid playing, funny for Halloween or cool if you’re in theater.
With our loose Jewishness, not held to the Christian mishegas concepts of sin, seemingly nothing was outside the boundaries. The man living with us, who wanted to be my boyfriend, he, too, was met with a shrug. My dropping out of eighth grade was normalized with the Yiddish saying, “Gam zu letovah!” — “And this, too, is for the good….” When a friend marveled at how I could share weed with my mom, I explained, “We’re Jewish.”
But I also knew if I ever dared to say the words “I have a boy inside me that wants to be outside me,” that would be out of bounds. would mean being a real sickie. And that label frightened me more than anything.
I hid my inside boy. I made him Other. When he wouldn’t go away, I wrote his stories; of course he was a goy, down to his blue eyes and blond hair. But he could never find an outlet in my body. I knew that was forbidden. Yet he needed to find a way to live in the world. I wrote fiction books under the pseudonym JT LeRoy, and while I was at it, I found a complex way to give him a body of his own.
When I came across Jill Soloway’s Amazon series “Transparent” — inspired by Soloway’s actual Jewish parent coming out as trans — I was blown away that such a show was possible. For those of us who grew up so steeped in shame at the concept that we might possibly feel other than our born gender, those of us who were denied the language to express what we experienced — to be able to watch this on a TV series was revolutionary and transfixing.
The four seasons of “Transparent” follow the Pfeffermans, an upper-middle-class, liberal progressive Los Angeles Jewish family, and how the transition of the patriarch, Morty, to Maura slowly liberates the family to explore that no man’s land of yore: gender.
That “Transparent” won an Emmy for best comedy keys you in to the genius of how this material is presented; you laugh while you cry. This deeply felt, humanistic storytelling makes it easy to identify with “Transparent” universally, as a touchstone for a wide range of relatable situations, emotions and generational conflicts: narratives of the immigrant, of gender identity and its politics, of how it’s not just anti-Semitism but also life under patriarchy that might be the cause of family dysfunction.
In Soloway’s new book, “She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy,” she traces her childhood growing up with a distant father, an activist mother and her close sibling and ally, the musically gifted Faith Soloway, who has worked with her on “Transparent.” Jill Soloway traverses the creative process whereby her discovery that her own father was trans fueled her to write and create “Transparent” — and opened her personal life and sense of identity in tandem. Soloway now identifies as nonbinary. Put simply, “non-binary” is used by people who do not identify as Male or Female. Some identify as a blend of both; others as neither. Often (but not always), non-binary people prefer to identify themselves using gender-netural “they/them” language. All of this is so beautifully expressed in “She Wants It” that I wept after reading it. And I deeply wished my mother were still alive. She knew I wrote as a boy and that I had an alter ego of sorts, but I sense that if she had read Soloway’s book and watched “Transparent,” she’d know it’s not the paradigm of being sick that is the problem, it is the sickness of patriarchy.
I had become friendly with Faith Soloway, and when we finally found ourselves in the same city at the same time, we spent a fantastical evening at my friend’s grand piano — Faith can play anything by ear — singing every show tune we could think of.
“I had no idea you were into musicals!” she said.
“Who knew JT LeRoy was not only Jewish but grew up with Tin Pan Alley?!” I said.
I was jazzed when Jill Soloway came to the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco for a discussion about their book. Faith Soloway joined her sister onstage, and the joyous connection between them gave the discussion most of the elements of an episode of “Transparent” — minus the sex but with lots of humor, warmth and bantering, plus an optimistic willingness to explore.
When Jill Soloway announced that “Transparent” would be coming out as a movie musical on Amazon, the audience stood and cheered. Actress Amy Landecker, who plays the eldest daughter, Sarah Pfefferman, joined them on stage at the JCC and performed one of the numbers from the musical — which has a line that, I predict, will become as significant as “I’m a good girl, I am” from “My Fair Lady.”
Sarah attempts to express to her mother why she needs to take a break, explaining that she is too triggered by her mother’s lack of respect for her boundaries. Faith Soloway, singing the part of the abandoned and distraught matriarch, Shelly Pfefferman (played in the series by powerhouse Judith Light), howls, in a moment drenched in ironic heartbreaking awareness, “Your boundaries are my triggers!” The Jewish mother’s ultimate lament!
Soloway’s book and the coming “Transparent” movie will allow so many to recognize themselves — and give them not only the words to identify but also the songs for belting them out. Imagine Tevye away from the shtetl and able to identify as trans, if so inclined. It’s the Shame Tradition that is being toppled! If I’d had Soloway’s book and “Transparent” when I was a kid, well, there would be no JT LeRoy. I would have had a way to recognize myself in the culture — not believing in your isolation of self is a powerful gift.
I was very moved when Jill Soloway told me how important my JT LeRoy books had been to the sisters on their path. It felt like we’d been in conversation for a long time.
When you spoke at the JCCSF, what you said felt very Jewish to me — the possibility of renewal, in this case entertaining a different iteration of our culture without patriarchy, where we can move past toxic shame by embracing everyone. In the Q&A, a woman asked how to explain to her son a T-shirt he’d seen, which said “The Future Is Female,” and to help him understand how a culture without patriarchy is beneficial.
Jill Soloway: Everyone has so much to gain from the toppling of patriarchy, including men. Framing this, I think, is surprisingly simple. One of the things we’re asking is just for men to step aside and let women and nonbinary folks help shoulder the burden, across the board. Let women lead, and free yourself from the masculine notion of being “the man” who takes care of everything, often at the expense of his own well-being and happiness. Look at what the end of patriarchy could do to revolutionize sexual dynamics. In “heterosexual” sexual situations, men have basically been implicitly saddled with managing their own consent, and the consent of their partner. How much happier would we all be if women felt free and empowered to speak up about what they wanted in the bedroom? We all stand to benefit from a world where we can be our authentic selves rather than some distorted version rooted in an attempt to “fulfill our gender role” under patriarchy.
How do you frame the way a non-patriarchal culture enriches everyone, and how do you do that without going into a caretaking Jewish mother role?
I don’t think framing things this way is taking on any sort of caretaker “Jewish mother” role. I think that a revolution of love and liberation means, to some extent, we all strive to be each other’s caretakers. Men need to take responsibility and do the work, yes. They’re the ones with the most privilege. But showing empathy for the fact that they, too, have experienced damaging aspects of patriarchy, and validating that as one reason they should be invested in revolution for all — I think that is an important part of building solidarity.
In “She Wants It,” you write about being taught that the word “trans” means “bridge,” and I kept seeing Charlton Heston as Moses, parting the Red Sea so that the Jews could escape from slavery and cross a bridge into freedom. I see so many approaches in your work to the theme of awakening from different forms of enslavement and suffering — generational, societal, sexual.
I think what you’re speaking to is ascertain universality in being “other.” As varied as experiences of oppression are, there’s a shared feeling of being on the outside of the privileged group. I don’t know that the Jewish story is a trans story, per se — but I think [the experiences] are stories that share a lot, for the reasons I just mentioned.
Many Jews, religious or not, struggle with the cliché but very real identity issue of being what a nice Jewish girl or boy is supposed to be. Conflicts with their own freedom to identify invariably arise. How would you advise them?
I would tell them to take the parts of being a “nice Jewish girl/boy/person” that feel joyful and good and useful to them, but never to feel trapped by expectation. I think we all sort of have that voice in the back of our heads, though.
Has anything changed for you in your identity as a Jew since you’ve come out as nonbinary?
Since coming out as nonbinary, I think I’ve been able to feel less guilty about resisting certain expectations of what a “good Jewish girl/woman/mother” looks like.
It feels as though you are playing the long game of creating an educational moment — so as to allow nonbinary to be digested and become part of the lexicon, which you can then build upon. Were you concerned that coming out as nonbinary would turn into a sticking point for some in the media and overshadow the other messages or directives of your book and work?
I’ve been really happy to be able to speak about nonbinary identity and what it means to me. Gender and consent and feminism are all so foundational to every message and directive I want to engage with, so it doesn’t feel like discussing “nonbinariness” is “detracting from the point” or anything like that. It’s a great entry point for almost everything I want to say. I will say that sometimes when the discussion is sensational or superficial, that can be a little frustrating. At the same time, I understand the importance of introducing people who may not be as immersed in gender issues to these ideas and terms.
Reading “She Wants It,” I experience your awakenings not only as they unfold in real time, but also how they overlap and integrate or build upon the awakenings or knowledge and wisdom of others around you. Your book is startlingly honest, and I was moved by its vulnerability as it laid out why the patriarchy should and must be toppled — just as the show “Transparent” invites the audience to go on a journey, one that prepares us to let patriarchy go. After the pivotal #MeToo movement threatened to destroy ‘Transparent’ too when Jeffrey Tambor was fired following allegations of sexual harassment, was there the sense that the show had to be sacrificed in order to save it — that any other compromise would have made it into something it wasn’t supposed to be?
If we want things like the #MeToo movement to be successful, we have to be constantly, vigilantly open to self-reflection and change. After everything, I didn’t feel that “Transparent” had to be sacrificed — but that it had to be changed. I love where we’ve taken things with the movie musical finale. It doesn’t feel like a compromise to me at all.
It brings to mind the scientist Friedrich August Kekule. After many years, he solved the problem of the benzene ring when he had a dream of a snake swallowing its tail. He said, “Visions come to prepared spirits.” Having gone through your own process of preparation, how much do you have to change “Transparent” in order to make it work as a musical?
It really hasn’t felt like a change at all, to be honest. Of course from a practical standpoint, preproduction looks a little different with things like dance rehearsals and recording sessions. But the spirit of the show always had this musical quality for me, and for Faith. Some sort of “Jesus Christ Superstar” undercurrent. Faith has been working on some version of the “Transparent” musical basically since the show began. I think we always sort of dreamed it would arrive here.
Cole Porter, after three Broadway fails, declared the secret to a musical success: “I’m going to write Jewish tunes.” So, I had to ask Faith Soloway about her Jewish tunes. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Can you tell us what it is about “Transparent” that makes it the right material for a musical?
Faith Soloway: The answer lies more in what makes me Faith, less about what makes “Transparent” a musical. I’ve been immersed in music all of my life, can almost analyze the joys and pain of life best through song, comedic and serious. So the obvious link, that the show is based on our family, is the obvious and best way I can serve the storytelling of “Transparent”: through the musical form.
How did you get to that epic line, in what I envision as a show-stopper, “Your boundary is my trigger!”?
I was actually working on another musical, very much based on a woman like Shelly, way before “Transparent.” My favorite way to write is through improvisation, so I gathered my theater buddies in search of this show called “Your Privates in Public,” about nontheater people taking a class to dramatize and work out their traumas, and I ended up improvising my way to that line, “What if your boundary is my trigger?”
Who are your musical influences?
My musical influences are Bill Evans, The Police, Suzanne Vega, ELO and everything in between.
At the JCC stage, you and Jill joked about the songs from Jewish summer camps. I remember singing those, too, and the way the tragic was made into song and even parody of sorts. Does that inform your musical sensibilities?
Being in Jewish day camp, and Jewish day school for that matter, we were singing all the time, so I do think many of us kids who grew up in Jewish-educated systems grew up singing, whether we had a choice in that or not. Luckily, I was always happy to learn a new tune.
Music sometimes reminds me of spray-foam insulation — it reaches into crevices that nothing else can penetrate. F. Scott Fitzgerald called the novel “the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion,” but I know as a writer that there is a part of our being that I cannot get to without song. Music permits us to have a whole other level of empathy and recognition. Is this potential for connectedness the unique advantage to reframing “Transparent” as a musical?
Singing lets you use another part of your brain and escape the brain at the same time; there is no doubt to its therapeutic properties.
••In the final episode of the fourth season of “Transparent,” the Pfefferman clan float in Israel’s Dead Sea, and one by one they all join in singing “Everything’s Alright” from “Jesus Christ Superstar.” When I was with Faith Soloway, she played it on the grand piano and we sang it as if it were a Gestalt therapy session. Much the way Jews wrote some of the best Christmas songs, this song, written by gentiles, feels perfectly composed for Jews to find peace and to float into new ways of holding an ever-transforming identity.
Laura Albert, writing as JT LeRoy, is the author of the best-selling novels ‘Sarah’ and ‘The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,’ and the novella ‘Harold’s End.’ She is the subject of Jeff Feuerzeig’s feature documentary ‘Author: The JT LeRoy Story.’