So, okay. Picture me in 1995. I am smart and opinionated and, in retrospect, maybe even kind of cute. But I’m also a teenage girl, which means I’m beset with insecurities, plagued by doubts and acne and various food issues. My high school English teacher has just taught a rather risqué unit on Woody Allen, and I am transfixed. The neuroses? The self-deprecation? The existential angst? All explored for jokes? Jewish humor felt more religious to me than anything I’d ever learned in Hebrew school. I wasn’t the first teenage girl to be so turned on by Woody (he and Soon-Yi were out of the closet by then), but my connection really did feel spiritual. It’s a shame, then, that so many of the female characters in his films—as iconic and brilliant as they were—felt foreign to me. Perhaps this was because I was too short to ever look good in menswear. Or maybe it was due to disappointment in the realization that even a loser schlemiel wants a shiksa goddess on screen.
If a great deal of Woody’s love interests weren’t my soul sisters, the female Jewish characters I saw portrayed in pop culture were perhaps too much of a kind. There was my beloved Barbra, of course, (patron saint of Jewish theater ladies and cross-dressers everywhere), and a few contemporary types that maybe hit a little too close to home: in film there was Baby Houseman who giggled awkwardly when limber sex god Patrick Swayze caressed her armpit. On TV there was zany neat freak Monica Geller, who always seemed hopped up on too much Central Perk caffeine; and there was also matronly Andrea Zuckerman, who spent her days editing the West Beverly Blaze while her friends hung out and did fun rich kid things. These ladies all had their charms, they evolved and grew and slept with handsome goys, but none of them were gonna win “Most Desirable Female” at any MTV awards shows.
So what a revelation it was to see Clueless (No. 24 on Tablet’s list of Greatest Jewish Films), which I initially thought would be just another mildly diverting teen movie, starring that girl from the Aerosmith videos (who I later learned was also a card-carrying tribe member). Pure escapism. Here was this Beverly Hills queen bee with shiny blonde hair and a perfect nose and self-confidence oozing out her otherwise perfectly clear pores. I noted that we had a couple of things in common–I too was a subpar driver who was saving myself for Luke Perry. But overall, Cher had the glow of someone who found Ren & Stimpy way existential—Woody Allen was not on her radar. She was the total opposite of me, in fact, right down to her aversion to college radio crybaby music. Cher’s life was too perfect to fully appreciate Radiohead!
And then, halfway through the movie, Cher’s teacher Mr. Hall (played by Wallace Shawn, himself a Jewish character actor legend) called her “Ms. Horowitz.” It dawned on me. She was one of us—me and Monica and Andrea and Yentl. Her faith wasn’t discussed explicitly on screen, and at one point Cher’s report card even says “Cher Hamilton,” a nod to the heroine in director—and fellow Jew—Amy Hecklering’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. As Cher might say, Whatever. Aside from one Rolling Stone review that used the less ethnic version of her name, this perfect, Noxzema commercial model of a girl was decisively known to adoring teenage girls (and boys!) everywhere as Cher Horowitz.
I’ve read that Cher is considered a JAP, one of the most insidious stereotypes of young Jewish women that also has a hint of truth to it. Thing is, Cher sort of was a modern day Jewish princess. She was Jane Austen’s Emma reincarnated as high school royalty. She made use of her daddy’s credit card, procuring a killer collection of mini-kilts that were stored in an electronically operated closet the likes of which I hadn’t seen since the bedroom of the villainess in Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. She whined and pouted and totally bugged when she didn’t get her way, and she was the epitome of hedonism and superficiality—at first.
But Cher was also an exemplar of the totally decent kind of Jewish person I aspired to be. She may not have been the smartest girl in school, but she was an excellent negotiator—a Jewish cliché that I responded to, being assertively-challenged myself. She helped out at home, making sure her father took his meds and stuck to a low cholesterol diet. She was loyal to her diverse and fabulous group of friends (let’s especially give a shout out to Dionne for putting Yiddish—“I’m kvelling”—back into modern day slang). Her plots and schemes and makeovers reeked of self-interest, but she was never slick or sleazy about them–her heart was ultimately in the right place. From her more-clueless-than-thou friend Tai, to the residents of Pismo Beach to whom she donated caviar and athletic equipment, she wanted to help people. And let’s not forget Josh. Serious, mopey, interested in current events and philosophy Josh—who happened to be kind of a Baldwin. After Cher’s doomed flirtation with Christian (not a Jew!), Josh was her perfect complement, a nice cute Jewish boy who appreciated her beauty, both outer and inner.
In Cher Horowitz, both Josh and I had found a new kind of shiksa goddess—one who happened to be Jewish.