Holiday episodes are a long-standing tradition. With so many episodes to produce in a year (especially for sitcoms), the appeal of built-in stories with clear themes makes a lot more sense. (Especially for sitcoms, which can often tie the “meaning” of a holiday to the nature of family.) Christmas episodes, Thanksgiving episodes, Halloween episodes, Valentine’s Day episodes, all clutter our DVRs for a reason—holidays structure our years the same way TV seasons occasionally do. They reliably bring up the same emotions and themes, if in slightly different permutations, and serve as instant plot engines. Still, pulling off effective, relatively universal holiday episodes is a lot harder when they’re part of a non-secular (or mainstream Christian) calendar.
That’s part of why the premise for “The Book Of Life” is so great—Yom Kippur is a perfect focus for an episode of TV. For the gentiles out there: Yom Kippur is one of the Jewish High Holidays, in which everyone fasts, abstains from all sorts of worldly pleasures, and spends the day in prayer asking for God’s forgiveness. (In theory, you’re supposed to ask for the forgiveness of humans during the days leading up to Yom Kippur.) When the day ends, everyone breaks their fast and, hopefully, gets written in the titular Book Of Life.
It’s the holiest day of the Jewish year (give or take the Sabbath), which makes it easy to think about the role of religion and spirituality in characters’ lives. There’s a lot of anxiety involved from fasting. And it’s all about forgiveness, which allows writers to drag up all sorts of old beef and force characters to confront them. Yom Kippur is kind of like the Transparent of Jewish holidays: a deeply sacred day for rigorous self-examination, shaggy spiritual pleas, and a big indulgent feast at the end.
Like Abbi and Ilana, the Pfeffermans don’t take Yom Kippur all that seriously. (None of them really have what Raquel would call a “spiritual practice.) Each Pfefferman makes him or herself the center of attention, taking a series of different approaches to perceived (and real) sins.
Start with Josh, who has a personalized, hyper-specific focus for his apologies in Raquel. Josh and Shelly have purchased tickets to get in to services far in advance, and he’s being a good Jewish son by taking his mom to temple (even if no one else wants to go, and even if it’s after their huge fight). But Raquel wants nothing to do with Josh, who continues to look like a hurt puppy avoiding the concrete fact of the breakup. He’s wracked with guilt (or maybe just general unhappiness) throughout a lovely scene showcasing the congregation praying (specifically the Al Chet). Eventually, he rushes out of the synagogue, takes off his yarmulke, and looks toward the heavens. Like the first time he showed up there, Josh is sitting on steps, looking like a child.
While Josh has a vague confrontation with his spiritual side, Sarah tries to drown herself in physical sensation—making herself feel better to dull out the pain underneath. She goes to see Dr. Steve (who continues to be bizarrely awkward, both by earnestly using the word “lover” and telling Sarah she looks “like a sexy Peter Pan) and tells him, “I need to get happy, STAT.”
But that’s only after she tries, sort of, to engage in the spirit of the occasion by formally apologizing to Tammy for breaking her heart. Her attempt to explain what Yom Kippur is a pretty condensed version of the whole problem: “You sort of absolve yourself.” “Or you get absolved.” Sarah doesn’t really know how to relate to what she’s done, or who she should ask for forgiveness (spoiler alert: it’s Tammy), and she eventually does everything other than take responsibility for her own actions, including claiming that her “problem” is that she “wasn’t parented.” This is true—Maura and Shelly were terrible parents, and it’s not hard to see why Josh, Ali, and Sarah never really learned how to interact with other people on emotionally healthy terms—but it doesn’t mean that Sarah didn’t choose to do what she did, and that leaving Tammy was not a brutal and cruel thing to do. As wretched as Sarah has been the whole season, it’s nice to see Tammy have a minor victory in walking away coolly from her ex.
Where Sarah acknowledges her guilt, but is incapable of figuring out how to alleviate it, Ali adamantly refuses to admit she’s done anything wrong and takes the moral authority to judge her actions into herself. When Syd, justifiably, complains about the night she spent at Leslie’s house, Ali wastes no time in admitting to being “vaguely attracted” to the other woman, and then insists on talking about it with her girlfriend in a weird, kinda meta way, examining the roots of their emotional responses. Of course, Ali positions this as a reaction to the “knee-jerk, heteronormative” response of sexual jealousy, but, like many other things Ali does, it makes sense intellectually while still serving as a guise for just being a dick.
Ali doesn’t make the obvious connection between her conception of queerness as questioning everything and Judaism, which encourages a similar spirit of inquisitiveness, but it’s at least possible she might get somewhere fulfilling by following her own thoughts (if they don’t ruin her first). Still, Syd probably won’t get there with her. Carrie Brownstein has a fantastic episode here, showing Syd straining under the pressure of hosting break fast and dealing with her lovely parents while also slowly starting to see that Ali is still who she’s always been.
Like her daughter, Maura continues to see herself as an emotional authority, but is also the Pfefferman with the unique honor of actually having insulted someone directly on Yom Kippur by questioning Davina’s relationship with Sal. It’s not hard to see why Maura would be a little unnerved by Sal, who asks her bluntly about her hormones and makes a few, perhaps, indelicate professional suggestions about the kinds of plastic surgery she could get. (“Uh, yeah,” he replies, when Maura asks whether he knows what T blockers are.) Sal’s open trans-amorousness hits on Maura’s insecurities with where she needs to (wants to? can?) go from her current expressions of her gender identity. (Remember how uncomfortable she was in the doctor’s office?) And it’s a little rude for him to say Maura “still has some good years left.”
Charitably, you would say Sal is treating Maura coolly, like a client, while uncharitably you would say he talks about her a bit like a piece of meat. None of this, however, excuses Maura inserting herself into Davina’s life with quite this level of condescension.
When Maura talks to Davina. “You can do better than that,” she’s presuming to know what it would mean for Davina to “do better.” It’s coming from behind a cloak of emotional intimacy, but really feels… well… a little paternalistic. And it raises the specter of the show’s classism. “I’m a 53-year-old ex-prostitute HIV positive woman with a dick. I know what I want, and I know what I need,” Davina spits at her friend. Alexandra Billings does perhaps her best work of the series in this short scene, taking several hours of accumulated tension and letting them seep into a few brutal lines.
There’s always been a strain of class criticism running through the response to this show—how can Transparent claim to be breaking ground for trans people when it’s about a bunch of rich Jews, particularly when most trans people are nowhere near as financially secure as Maura?—and this is one of the most self-aware acknowledgments of that problem I’ve seen. Transparent is still aggressively, specifically about the Pfeffermans and the people in their orbit, but the show knows that lots of other people, and especially most trans people, don’t have many of the same advantages and wealth. (Tammy makes the same criticism of Sarah, when her ex tries to explain that she was never “really” parented—it must have been real tough for Sarah to grow up in a beautiful home in the Palisades.)
But in the same way that all of the Pfeffermans (and, really, all of us) need to atone each year on Yom Kippur (to quote a famous Jew, let he who is without sin, etc.), they’re all also suffering, and the fact that that suffering happens to people who are relatively well-off doesn’t mean it still isn’t suffering. There’s a lot going on, and honestly, by this point in the season, it’s a little hard to keep all of it straight.
Buzz, Shelly’s new man, doesn’t have that problem. “Like a steel trap,” he says, pointing to his head while Shelly tries to fill him in on everyone’s backstory. Buzz! Played by Richard Masur (who, among many other TV parts, played Hannah’s touchy boss on Girls), the “Jewish Santa Claus” moniker he gets from Josh isn’t so far-off a description. Buzz is an open, witty, warm person who takes pride in small social things (like being an attorney for NASA on one patent case) that would be of interest to, well, Shelly. He’s a great foil for the rest of the family here, dropped into a bunch of people’s problems and still managing to come across as more empathetic.
The dinner scene here is one of the best depictions of the Pfeffermans’ overall family dynamic. Ali presents Yom Kippur as being allowed to live another year in exchange for apologizing, which is… kind of a misunderstanding of the holiday. If you go for selfish reasons or don’t genuinely “mean” your apologies, you probably aren’t spiritually pure enough (whatever that means) to “earn” placement in the Book Of Life. (Under this reading—I think better Jews than I would have a lot to say about the Pfefferman’s understanding of the day.) Sarah continues to act on her desire to be consumed—as much as Steve wants to “give [her] pleasure,” it won’t make her happy unless she feels like she’s given up control. So she consumes in turn, shoving food in her mouth like a guilty kid before Ali has said the blessing. Josh looks around nervously, waiting for the other shoe to drop with Raquel.
Who would have guessed Ali would ever be the voice of responsibility and rule-following on this show in any scene? And can you even imagine being one of the people not in the family watching this train wreck?
Buzz is put in the rather uncomfortable position of both meeting Shelly’s ex-spouse and dealing with her convulsive reaction to hearing about the end of Josh’s relationship. Josh rolls his eyes at Shelly’s wracking sobs, perhaps rightly so. “This is not yours,” he says, in one of Jay Duplass’ best acting moments of the season. He has a right to be angry at Shelly, even if he comes across as a bit callous. (Remember how quiet their fight was in the last episode… and he still went to temple with her.) And Buzz inadvertently hits on one of the facts about the holiday everyone has missed trying to comfort her—she’s really not all that powerful.
Superstition and religion only fit into the Pfeffermans’ lives when it’s convenient. Shelly can explain why the baby is gone and why Josh is no longer dating Raquel by referring to her own actions, making herself the center of the universe in a self-flagellating way, the flip side of Sarah abdicating responsibility by suggesting she can absolve herself. Ali talks about Yom Kippur in the context of getting something out of her observance. Josh goes to temple in part to see Raquel, and is slapped back down. None of them really know how to be Jewish. Best case scenario, they’ll keep trying. Baruch HaShem.
- “That’s none of my business. You can tell them whatever you want, buddy.” Even in a very brief appearance, Kathryn Hahn still gets one of the best line deliveries of the episode.
- “The Book Of Life” is written by Ethan Kuperberg (who also wrote last year’s most Jewish sixth episode, and continues to do an excellent job depicting modern Judaism) and directed by Jim Frohna.
- “You just gotta smoke through it.”
- “I’m not into BD—I’m not like those people. Those people have sex burgers.”
- “It’s okay to be sad. It’s sad.”