Sasha Gayle-Schneider of Oakland on the set of the new season of "Transparent," which is set in Israel. (Photo/Courtesy Sasha Gayle-Schneider)
Sasha Gayle-Schneider of Oakland on the set of the new season of "Transparent," which is set in Israel. (Photo/Courtesy Sasha Gayle-Schneider)

A queer Jew’s moment of fame on TV’s queerest, most Jewish show

A line about the ubiquitous Israeli peanut-flavored snack called Bamba is the topic of Sasha Gayle-Schneider’s television debut, as the Oakland resident appears as an extra on the current season of “Transparent.”

“Transparent” is an Emmy Award-winning Amazon series about Maura Pfefferman (played by Jeffrey Tambor), who is transitioning from male to female in her later years, and her adult children. Now in its fourth season, it has been embraced by the Jewish and queer communities alike as a cultural phenomenon, and has been called both the most Jewish and the most queer TV show ever.

The series is based on creator Jill Soloway’s father, who came out as a woman later in life.

Gayle-Schneider, 23, works as a community organizer for Planting Justice, an Oakland-based nonprofit that builds permaculture gardens for underserved communities.

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Sasha Gayle-Schneider (glasses) on the set of “Transparent” with other actors, including star Gaby Hoffman (top, middle), who plays Ali Pfefferman.

Having grown up very Jewishly involved on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Gayle-Schneider, who identifies as queer and prefers “they” and “them” pronouns, was thrilled to participate and be on the inside of such a groundbreaking series.

“This show hits so close to home,” said Gayle-Schneider. “It’s changing hearts and minds in terms of trans issues, queerness and the politics that it addresses. I’m honored to have been a part of it for sure.”

It all began in March of this year, when Gayle-Schneider received a casting call text — along with about 40 other people — from a friend who is an assistant producer on the show, someone Gayle-Schneider knows through the activist group IfNotNow.

As the Pfefferman clan was headed to Israel this season, Soloway was looking to include not only the point of view that most Jews get when visiting for the first time, but the Palestinian narrative as well. Gayle-Schneider fit the bill as an American Jew active on behalf of the Palestinian cause, and in fact, when they have the one line about Bamba, the context is a discussion with mostly Palestinian friends about not buying the product because of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS.

Gayle-Schneider sent in an audition video shot on a friend’s phone. Auditioners were asked to act out explaining the conflict to another person at a social gathering, first calmly, then with some irritation, and then a little more belligerently.

“It wasn’t at all about my politics, it was more about how I engage with folks who know varying degrees about the political situation in Israel/Palestine,” said Gayle-Schneider, who has traveled widely in the region and also lived there for a time.

About 40 hours later, Gayle-Schneider received an email from casting director Eyde Belasco, saying they got the part. About five minutes later, successive calls came with flight details (to Los Angeles, even though the action supposedly takes place on the West Bank), and instructions about how to dress.

Gayle-Schneider, who flew to Los Angeles the very next day and spent three full days on set, appears in two episodes (three and seven) and rather briefly at that.

Without giving away too many spoilers, Ali Pfefferman (played by Gaby Hoffman), the youngest of the three siblings, meets up with an activist friend who takes her to Ramallah, where she encounters Palestinians and immerses herself in the Palestinian narrative.

While Gayle-Schneider was given a script the night before, and the group did a read-through of it several times, Hoffman, who was directing for the first time that day, decided to do away with the script for the scene and much of it was ad-libbed.

“We developed a rapport that was generous and kind,” said Gayle-Schneider. “Since they cast Palestinian-American actors, we heard from those who grew up in Area C, or those whose grandparents are from Haifa or from Jaffa. We spoke these stories aloud to each other while the cameras were rolling. I’ve also spent time in the settlements and with Palestinian friends in Bethlehem and Ramallah. That day we were educating Jill Soloway and Gaby Hoffman and Ali Pfefferman about it.”

Gayle-Schneider said they shot that first day for what could have been 10 hours.

“This was a collective effort to do a lot of thinking and thoughtful community-building and discussion, while all the while, an Emmy Award-winning series was shooting,” the Oakland resident said. “Then they boiled it down to a minute on screen, so there’s a lot of different directions the footage could have gone.”

The show later has an excellent depiction of the generational divide, with the family debating the conflict on a bus ride. An Israeli traveling with them says the word Palestinian didn’t exist before 1967, and the older generation expresses the need for a place for Jews to go after the Holocaust, with Ali questioning how Jews and the world can ignore the human rights of the Palestinians.

Gayle-Schneider said the show resonates so deeply as both a queer person and “such an identified Jew.”

“It’s unbelievable to have such Jewish and haimish characters on the screen and to have those same characters who are Jewish also be queer and trans, that’s never been done before,” they said.

They especially appreciated that friends and family all over the country were watching and were not only being confronted with varying expressions of queer identity, but with the reality of what life is like for Palestinians on the West Bank.

“This is an unbelievably unique thing,” Gayle-Schneider said. “To see such thoughtful and destructive but ultimately relatable and multidimensional characters is really powerful. And to have everyone from my shul be watching the show in their living rooms and being confronted with the Palestinian narrative from the comfort of their own spaces has never been done before.

“This is how a cultural conversation begins and continues. As our Jewish communities are exposed in new and thoughtful ways to the Palestinian narrative and experience it, while all the while it being full of humor and through the lens of a Jewish Birthright-like trip for a family, and having some of those folks be queer, is something previously that would be unthinkable. It was an honor to be a part of such a project, even if only for three days.”

Unrelated to Gayle-Schneider’s story, local musician Jeremiah Lockwood’s music is featured in “Transparent” this season as well. The founder of the New York-based band Sway Machinery is getting his Ph.D. at Stanford, so is local for the time being. One of the band’s songs was featured at the end of episode 6, as Ali Pfefferman donned a kippah and entered the men’s section at the Western Wall.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."