Lessons From “Maura”

0915coverThe awkwardness of Jeffrey Tambor’s character Maura Pfefferman is palpable. 

But Tambor is anything but awkward.  Whereas Maura (nee Mort) struggles with who she is, Tambor has known most of his life that the stage and screen is where he belongs. And this is evident when you see him in the roles he has taken on through the years. You do not get Jeffrey Tambor as… You get Maura Pfeffman, George Bluth Sr., Sid and Hank Kingsley. You see Tambor become the people you find yourself being drawn to. I certainly found myself loving the affable Maura on “Transparent” but wanting to deck the narcissistic, unscrupulous George Bluth, Sr. on “Arrested Development.”

Jeffrey Tambor knows who he is. Born and raised in San Francisco, CA he is the second son of Eileen and Bernie Tambor. Like the Pfeffermans, Tambor grew up a West Coast Jew and understands being a West Coast Jew. When asked what he is like as a dad, Tambor makes it clear he is nothing like the dads he plays on  television and in film.

“I am a much better dad than I am on TV!”  He admits that he is an older dad, “I’m no teenager, I have a 42-year-old daughter…”  He also has a 10-year-old son, Gabriel, an eight-year-old daughter, Evie, and five-year-old twin boys, Eli and Hugo. “I learn from my kids—they’re my best teachers,” says Tambor. “And they are funny—the hardest thing about parenting is keeping a straight face.” Tambor admits that his wife is the true disciplinarian. “With me they just laugh. When I say, ‘I really mean it,’ they just start laughing.”

Tambor’s latest gig, as Maura Pfefferman, was offered to him by the show’s producer Jill Soloway. He admits that he was halfway through the script and told Soloway, “I’m in…” And for Tambor it is the role of a lifetime. “Jill Soloway changed my life because she gave me the role of Maura Pfefferman and the responsibility of Maura Pfefferman.” During the interview Tambor mentioned he had just come from a table read for the series and gushed about the quality of the show and how fortunate he is to have this kind of work. How much he loves his work is evident when you see the awards Tambor has accumulated just after the show’s first season. Not only did Tambor receive the coveted Golden Globe for his part as Maura, he was recently honored by the world’s first synagogue founded by, and for, lesbians and gay men, for his groundbreaking role and as an inspiration to the transgender and LGB communities with the Rabbi Erwin & Agnes Herman Humanitarian Award. The award is named for two leaders of Reform Judaism instrumental in Beth Chayim Chadashim’s founding in 1972. The award recognizes those making outstanding and lasting contributions to the LGBT and Jewish communities.

Tambor admits his parents were not overly enthused about him acting. “My dad was very nervous about me acting… He was middle class, came up on the East Side [of New York]…  He was scared, he wanted me to be a teacher.” But Tambor’s father saw him on Broadway and in his first film, with Al Pacino and said, “Maybe you’ll be okay.”

When I asked Tambor about the transition from previous roles to Maura he described it as a learning experience, and he went on to say something quite profound: “You have to understand that Maura is very young in her life and Jeffrey [Tambor] is very young in learning how to be Maura. And so the two are meeting each other at a very delicate time… a wonderful time…  Maura feels like an old, old friend.”

And what about the role, the makeup, the dresses, the shoes? Tambor has no problem with any of it. And just like Maura he too is learning as he goes. Tambor admitted that he was surprised that women have to learn how to put on makeup.  “It’s been a big learning curve… but it’s been great” says Tambor.  He goes on to disclose that he has had to access more of Jeffrey then he has ever had to in a role and it has made him a better parent and a better human being.

When asked about how Tambor’s family feels about him playing Maura, he says that he was a little careful at first when talking to his eight-year-old daughter about the role. But, she seemed to have more insight than some adults, as she responded with “Daddy, it’s okay, I understand, your character is more comfortable being a woman…” Out of the mouths of babes. Tambor reflects and says “They haven’t learned to be prejudiced, they haven’t learned about the ‘other.’ We as Jews, we know about the other…”

Playing a Jewish woman, a matriarch, means a lot to Tambor. He was unable to reveal the upcoming season’s premise, but he did let us know that there is a significant Jewish theme that will run through the season. While it is a fictional show that reflects a Jewish family, transgender issues, and family dynamics, it is also very real. The family dynamic thread that runs through the show is relatable. You do not have to be Jewish to understand disparity between siblings, parents and partners. As Jews we understand the impact of secrets on families. The show has also provided healing for many who watch it.  Tambor shared that many parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) children have approached him and thanked him for his work on the show. And, says Tambor, “It is not just about transgender issues, people want to talk about their families… the show hits a cord.”

Our final question to Tambor was one that caused him to pause, “As a father, what would you say to a child that comes to you and says, ‘I’m gay or lesbian, or I’m in the wrong body’?”

“Oh, what a profound and beautiful question…” He relayed a story that parents he met brought to him: “They said to me, ‘We love your show… We really, really love your show.’ Their son called and said, ‘I don’t want to go back to softball anymore, please don’t make me go back.’  The parents said, ‘Why? What’s wrong?’ He [the son] said, ‘Daddy, mommy, I’m not a boy-boy. The parents asked, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Mommy, daddy, when I grow up, I want to be like Katy Perry.’”

Tambor went on to say the parents listened, and all three of them watch the show together. “My father wanted me to be a teacher, and in a way, Jill Soloway and company, we’re sort of teaching about not fearing the other and not ostracizing people. I’ve always believed acting and laughter was instruction.”

So perhaps Jeffrey Tambor became a teacher after all. Teaching us a lesson that may be hard for some to hear, but as Jews we understand what it is like to be “the other.” We know the pain of exclusion, the history of separation, and the fear of living in a world that sees us as outcasts.

Take some time to watch “Transparent.” To watch Tambor as Maura Pfefferman is sometimes heartbreaking, but the transition from Jeffrey to Maura is nothing short of genius. Allow yourself the space to experience a family that despite the fictional script, is playing out someone’s real life. Maura Pfefferman could be your father, your child, your friend… Maura Pfefferamn could be you.

Dr. Grajewski is a licensed psychologist who splits her clinical time between JFFS and a private practice in Irvine, as well as an adjunct Assistant Professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.  Dr. Grajewski has been writing for Jlife Magazine since 2004.

Tanya Schwied graduated from New York University, studied abroad in Israel, and currently works for the CEO and President of Jewish Federation & Family Services. 

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