In Plain Sight: Jewish Masquerade from Clueless to the Rabbis

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Malka Z. Simkovich

One of the most theologically sophisticated movies made in the 1990s is a romantic comedy called Clueless whose heroine devotes the bulk of her time to shopping at the mall. When this girl’s ex-stepbrother moves into her family mansion and various aspects of her social life unravel, the girl, Cher Horowitz, learns that true love may not be where she expects to find it. Part of what makes this movie so endearing is the absurdity of Cher’s expectations regarding where she might find love. After a desperate pursuit of a wealthy (and gay) classmate, Christian, Cher falls in love with her ex-stepbrother Josh, who teaches Cher that the most meaningful acquisitions are not in the houses of Gucci or Dior, but in the halls of true love. Cher does not reject materialism by the end of the movie. But she does accept that her romantic destiny lies right in front of her, waiting for her at home.

On the face of it, Clueless has nothing to say about Jews or Judaism. Cher is a vapid adolescent who lives a materialistic life that does not intersect with religious observance. Visual clues in the movie, however, tell a different story. Pivotal scenes take place near the entrance to Cher’s mansion, where a mezuzah is nailed onto the doorpost, properly tilted at a slight angle. In these scenes, Cher exchanges banter with her father, whose facial features mark him as a stereotypical Ashkenazi Jew. Cher’s father is a take-no-prisoners attorney who shouts his lines in a New York accent, and whose addiction to work (and, presumably, money) is eclipsed only by a sense of protectiveness for his daughter. Cher’s Jewish identity is reflected onto everyone who lives in her orbit. Her best friend, Dionne Davenport, uses yiddishisms like “I’m kvelling” as a way of friendly “bageling,” the practice of using identifiably Jewish language in conversations that single out Cher as a Jew. While Cher’s friends treat her as a member of a privileged elite, Cher focuses on Christian, whom she perceives as an insider whose love could secure her social legitimacy. Christian, however, turns out to be just like Cher. He, too, sacrifices his true identity to maintain the façade of legitimacy.

Subconsciously aware that she does not truly inhabit the society that she worships, Cher engages in a determined crusade to fit in. Cher’s motivation to transform her friend Tai, a new student who shows up at school in grunge and flannel, derives from her desire to have the power to transform anyone, beginning with herself. By making Tai over, moreover, Cher has a chance to authenticate her own credentials as an insider. Perhaps the biggest joke of all in Clueless is its name: the movie is full of hints, wordplay, and double meanings which gesture to the fact that Cher—unlike the audience—simply doesn’t know who she is.


The dissonance between the visual clues in Clueless and its dialogue taps into questions about cultural integration that have been the Jewish inheritance for two thousand years. Since ancient times, Jews have responded to these questions by masquerading as insiders to gain entry into their broader society. Jewish masquerading has nothing to do with internal transformation. Instead, it is the exact opposite of it. Masquerading is artificial. It is motivated not by an attempt to transform, but by an attempt to protect one’s internal identity when faced with dangerous circumstances. Masquerade produces a chasm between how a person moves through the world and how they experience the world internally. This masquerade involves one’s manner of dress, and often the adoption of dialect used by the majority population that the outsider wants to inhabit. Jewish writers have long treated the adoption of these mannerisms as a necessary component to their survival in an alien world.

The Hebrew Bible preserves many stories of Israelites and Judahites wearing disguises. In some of these stories, heroes don disguises to deceive their enemies, obtain crucial information, or advance their purposes. The kind of disguises that parallels the sort of masquerade we find in Clueless, however, in which one wears the clothes of a person who has no other goal than to fit in, is rare. In biblical stories, people disguise themselves to accomplish a specific goal. In a few cases the masquerader is a man, such as when Jacob disguises himself as his twin brother Esau to obtain Esau’s birthright, and in 1 Kings 22, when King Ahab disguises himself to go into battle. The biblical authors who wrote about these misrepresentations did not necessarily view them as worthy of praise. Jacob’s dishonesty comes full circle when his own sons deceive him about the fate of his favorite son Joseph through clothing. And King Ahab’s disguise, meant to prevent his attracting the attention of his enemies, leads to his death on the battlefield.

More often than not, biblical masquerade is executed by women. In Genesis 12, Sarai masquerades as the sister of Abram in order to save Abram from being executed by Pharaoh. In Genesis 38, Tamar dresses up as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law Judah. In 1 Kings 14, the Judean king Jeroboam instructs his wife to disguise herself and approach the prophet Ahijah to determine the future of Jeroboam’s reign. And in the book of Ruth, Ruth conceals herself and dresses up as a stranger. Women in the biblical period were perceived to be good masqueraders, perhaps because their dress was closely linked to their social position, and thus their change of dress designated the change of their position.

Women also masquerade in Jewish documents produced in the late Second Temple period. Some of these women don dresses in order to identify with a particular social group. In doing so, they convey an internal conviviality that conceals their anxieties and fears. In the Book of Judith, for instance, the eponymous heroine removes the mourning clothes she has been wearing in the wake of her husband’s death amidst a military siege of her town Bethulia. She dons beautiful clothes, leaves town, and presents herself to enemy guards. Judith then convinces the guards to let her pass through the siege by insisting that she wants to defect from her people.[1] Smitten by her charm and beauty, enemy soldiers fall for the ruse, and welcome Judith into their camp. Three days later, Judith seduces and assassinates their general, Holofernes. Judith’s beautiful clothes, which set her apart from her fellow Judeans, are an integral part of her plan to save her people.

Another Judean novella produced around the same time as Judith, or a few decades later, is the Greek version of the Hebrew book of Esther. This story also features the eponymous heroine dressing in festive clothes during a time of crisis for the Jewish people. Esther dons royal attire when approaching the king, which helps to convey signs of her romantic desire for him.[2] Both Judith and Esther feature a brave and righteous woman who saves her Jewish community by dressing up in a way which suggests that she is a disloyal outsider to her own people.

Such masquerade is symbolically apposite to the physical transformation that some Jewish men at this time underwent in order to assimilate into Hellenistic life. These men were so desperate to shed the signs of their Jewish identity that they engaged in a dangerous and painful surgical procedure that reversed the sign of male circumcision by reattaching a flap of skin. The late second century BCE Judean work, 1 Maccabees, critiques such Jews, who “built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant.” These Jews, the author insists, “joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.”[3] This procedure, known as epispasm, marks an attempt to produce an internal transformation. It is not masquerade, and it is often doomed. As we will see, the author of 1 Maccabees was one of many Jewish writers who believed that such transformation was impossible for Jews, regardless of the lengths they went to.

Another second century BCE Jewish account of the Hasmonean rebellion, 2 Maccabees, also critiques such Jews. In this diasporan work, Jews who masquerade as Hellenizers by changing their clothes, dress, and language are critiqued as disloyal to their ancestral traditions, and are held responsible for the dangers that the Jews faced when Antiochus IV Epiphanes prohibited the observance of ancestral law. The hero of 2 Maccabees is an unnamed Jewish woman who encourages her seven sons to sacrifice themselves when she and her sons are commanded by Antiochus to violate Jewish dietary laws on pain of death. This woman resists the temptations of inculturation so strongly that she speaks to her sons in the “language of their ancestors,” which prevents the king from understanding her, but which also stands as a symbolic act of resistance to forced assimilation.[4]

Like their biblical and Second Temple predecessors, the rabbis critique internal assimilation but praise Jewish masquerade as an occasionally necessary strategy. One rabbinic tradition praises the first generation of Israelites who resisted both internal assimilation and external masquerading while living in the land of Egypt.[5] On the other hand, the rabbis also preserved stories of exceptions to the rule, where such disguises were deemed essential to save Jewish lives or to  safeguard Jewish practice. Rather than being shunned as betrayers of their traditions, the individuals who dress in disguise at personal risk are praised as righteous heroes. In many of these traditions, men disguise themselves in ways that subvert readers’ expectations of how a Jewish man can and should behave.[6]

The Babylonian Talmud preserves a few such stories. One recalls an incident concerning a rabbi named Reuven the son of Isterobeli, who styled his hair in Roman fashion to sit among Romans and convince them to permit Jews to observe the Sabbath (Me’ilah 17a):

Rabbi Reuven ben Isterobeli went and cut his hair in a komei hairstyle, which was common only among the gentiles, and he went and sat with the gentiles when they were discussing these three decrees. He said to them: One who has an enemy, does he want his enemy to become poor or to become rich? They said to him: He wants his enemy to become poor. Rabbi Reuven ben Isterobeli said to them: If so, with regard to the Jewish people as well, isn’t it better that they will not perform labor on Shabbat in order that they will become poor? The gentiles said: That is a good claim that he said; let us nullify our decree. And they indeed nullified it.

The non-Hebrew family name of this story’s protagonist, Reuven ben Isterobeli, indicates that this rabbi may have some kind of connection with the gentiles who live outside of the rabbinic community. Sure enough, the rabbi seems familiar with the styles and mores of this community, and is capable of styling his hair according to their customs so he may sit among them without arousing their suspicion. The Romans whose meal he joins assume that he is a member of their community, or that he comes from a Roman family. When the rabbi engages in conversation with his Roman companions, he opens with a question that suggests a familiarity with the Socratic mode of discourse that was common at symposiums. He thus disguises himself by using external modes of expression that were known to distinguish Jews from their non-Jewish host culture: language, clothing, and perhaps name as well. Reuven ben Isterobeli’s masquerade is temporary, superficial, and only meant to advance the interests of the Jewish community.

In another talmudic tradition, Ta’anit 22a, a rabbi named Beroka Hoza’a encounters Elijah in a marketplace. Elijah surprises Beroka by informing him that one of the men at the market is worthy of the World to Come:

Rabbi Beroka Ḥoza’a was often found in the market of Bei Lefet, and Elijah the Prophet would often appear to him. Once Rabbi Beroka said to Elijah: Of all the people who come here, is there anyone in this market worthy of the World-to-Come? He said to him: No. In the meantime, Rabbi Beroka saw a man who was wearing black shoes, contrary to Jewish custom, and who did not place the sky-blue, dyed thread of ritual fringes on his garment. Elijah said to Rabbi Beroka: That man is worthy of the World-to-Come.

Rabbi Beroka ran after the man and said to him: What is your occupation? The man said to him: Go away now, as I have no time, but come back tomorrow and we will talk. The next day, Rabbi Beroka arrived and again said to him: What is your occupation? The man said to him: I am a prison guard [zandukana], and I imprison the men separately and the women separately, and I place my bed between them so that they will not come to transgression. When I see a Jewish woman upon whom gentiles have set their eyes, I risk my life to save her. One day, there was a betrothed young woman among us, upon whom the gentiles had set their eyes. I took dregs [durdayya] of red wine and threw them on the lower part of her dress, and I said: She is menstruating [dastana], so that they would leave her alone. 

The opening lines of this story pique the reader’s curiosity. Is the man that Rabbi Beroka approaches a righteous gentile whose manner of dress reflects his true identity, or is he a Jew dressed in disguise? And what, exactly, has he done to merit the World to Come? After repeated attempts to obtain answers to these questions, Rabbi Beroka discovers the nature of this man’s virtuosity: he stains the clothes of captive Jewish women with wine to repel them from gentile men who desire to sexually assault them. Upon seeing stains on the women’s garments, gentile men were led to believe that the women were menstruating, and  dismissed them as undesirable.

Hearing about these valiant acts, Rabbi Beroka remains unsatisfied. If this person is indeed a Jew, why is he not dressing as one? The man’s answer confirms his identity as an insider to the rabbinic community:

Rabbi Beroka said to him: What is the reason that you do not have threads of ritual fringes, and why do you wear black shoes? The man said to him: Since I come and go among gentiles, I dress this way so that they will not know that I am a Jew. When they issue a decree, I inform the Sages, and they pray for mercy and annul the decree. Rabbi Beroka further inquired: And what is the reason that when I said to you: What is your occupation, you said to me: Go away now but come tomorrow? The man said to him: At that moment, they had just issued a decree, and I said to myself: First I must go and inform the Sages, so that they will pray for mercy over this matter.

In the meantime, two brothers came to the marketplace. Elijah said to Rabbi Beroka: These two also have a share in the World-to-Come. Rabbi Beroka went over to the men and said to them: What is your occupation? They said to him: We are jesters, and we cheer up the depressed. Alternatively, when we see two people who have a quarrel between them, we strive to make peace. It is said that for this behavior one enjoys the profits of his actions in this world, and yet his reward is not diminished in the World-to-Come. 

Ultimately, the man in disguise is proven to be more pious than most Jews who dress identifiably as Jews. He masquerades as a Roman in order to move between Jewish and Roman spaces and save the sexual purity of Jewish women in captivity. Such masquerading, we find out, can occur within the Jewish community as well. Elijah informs Beroka that two other men in the market also have a place reserved for them in the World to Come. These men are jesters who make peace between people who are quarreling. While the story does not specify whether these men dress differently than others, we can assume that based on their occupation as entertainers, their dress was distinctive. The story thus praises masquerade as a tool that can be used to preserve Jewish integrity and maintain internal peace.

Another talmudic story, found in Avodah Zarah 18a-b, opens with the scholar Beruriah asking her husband Rabbi Meir to save her sister, who is living in a Roman brothel:

The Gemara relates: Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir, was a daughter of Rabbi Ḥanina ben Teradyon. She said to Rabbi Meir: It is a disrespectful matter for me that my sister is sitting in a brothel; you must do something to save her. Rabbi Meir took a vessel [tarkeva] full of dinars and went. He said to himself: If no transgression was committed with her, a miracle will be performed for her; if she committed a transgression, no miracle will be performed for her.

Rabbi Meir disguises himself as a Roman knight to gain access to the brothel. He then tries to seduce Beruriah’s sister, who demurs:

Rabbi Meir went and dressed as a Roman knight, and said to her: Accede to my wishes, i.e., engage in intercourse with me. She said to him: I am menstruating [dashtana] and cannot. He said to her: I will wait. She said to him: There are many women in the brothel, and there are many women here who are more beautiful than I. He said to himself: I can conclude from her responses that she did not commit a transgression, as she presumably said this to all who come.

The dialogue between Rabbi Meir and his sister-in-law is one of mutual concealment. He plays the part of a Roman, while she plays the part of a menstruating woman. Rabbi Meir is aware of both disguises, but she is only aware of her own. After Rabbi Meir determines that his sister-in-law is lying to visitors in order to avoid sexual intimacy, he tries to obtain her release. Rabbi Meir chooses his words carefully as he convinces the guards to release his sister-in-law:

Rabbi Meir went over to her guard, and said to him: Give her to me. The guard said to him: I fear that if I do so, I will be punished by the government. Rabbi Meir said to him: Take this vessel full of dinars; give half to the government as a bribe, and half will be for you. The guard said to him: But when the money is finished, what shall I do? Rabbi Meir said to him: Say: God of Meir answer me! And you will be saved. The guard said to him: And who can say that this is the case, that I will be saved by this utterance? Rabbi Meir said to him: You will now see. There were these carnivorous dogs that would devour people; Rabbi Meir took a clod of earth, threw it at them, and when they came to devour him, he said: God of Meir answer me! The dogs then left him alone, and after seeing this the guard gave the daughter of Rabbi Ḥanina ben Teradyon to Rabbi Meir. Ultimately the matter was heard in the king’s court, and the guard, who was brought and taken to be hanged, said: God of Meir answer me! They then lowered him down, as they were unable to hang him. They said to him: What is this? He said to them: This was the incident that occurred, and he proceeded to relate the entire story to them. 

Rabbi Meir convinces the Roman guard to release his sister-in-law by assuring him that, if he is apprehended and held accountable by his Roman overseers, he should cry out to the “God of Meir.” When speaking about himself, Meir is careful to conceal his Jewish identity. He identifies himself as Meir rather than as Rabbi Meir, and does not clarify the identity of his god. He simply guarantees that, upon releasing the woman in question, the guard will not suffer harm. When the guard later cries out Meir’s name, rather than the name of Meir’s God, he unknowingly maintains the ruse by not revealing the identity of Meir’s God. At the same time, by publicly appealing to Meir for salvation, he turns Meir into a wanted man. The Talmud then describes the events that occurr as the Romans seek to apprehend Meir and prosecute him:

They then went and engraved the image of Rabbi Meir at the entrance of Rome where it would be seen by everyone, and they said: Anyone who sees a man with this face should bring him here. One day, Romans saw Rabbi Meir and ran after him, and he ran away from them and entered a brothel to hide. Some say he then escaped capture because he saw food cooked by gentiles and dipped [temash] this finger in the food and tasted it with that other finger, and thereby fooled them into thinking that he was eating their food, which they knew Rabbi Meir would not do. And some say that he escaped detection because Elijah came, appeared to them as a prostitute and embraced Rabbi Meir. The Romans who were chasing him said: Heaven forbid, if this were Rabbi Meir, he would not act in that manner. 

Rabbi Meir arose, fled, and arrived in Babylonia.  There are those who say that he fled because of this incident, and there are those who say that he fled due to embarrassment from the incident involving his wife Beruriah.

Once Rabbi Meir is recognized as the man who aided the woman’s escape, he is forced to disguise himself once again. This time, he does not don Roman clothes. He does, however, wind up once again in a brothel. What happens next is debated by the rabbis. Perhaps Rabbi Meir shared a meal with Romans, but only pretended to eat non-kosher food to pass himself off as a Roman. Alternatively, perhaps he began to sexually embrace a woman – although this woman was none other than Elijah the prophet, and thus Rabbi Meir’s sexual piety was not compromised. Whatever happened next, the Romans were properly fooled. They knew that Rabbi Meir would never consider violating Jewish ancestral laws by eating defiling foods or engaging in sex with a prostitute. The rabbinic writer of this story, likewise, believed that Rabbi Meir would never willingly violate Jewish laws. His survival, therefore, depended on deceiving the Romans by acting like them.

Like the other legends I have mentioned, the disguises in this story appear in connection with female sexuality. Perhaps this is because men were known to wear disguises when entering brothels so as not to be recognized by friends and family members. But these stories also presume a cultural connection between sexuality and assimilation into Roman society. Bruriah wants her sister released from a brothel not only because of the sexual shame she may be enduring, but because her position symbolizes subjugation to Roman control. Meir, meanwhile, shows signs of inculturation to Roman society by linking himself with the practices of other Roman men. Rabbi Meir’s disguises and masquerades are considered acceptable because they are temporary, artificial, and end when the goal is achieved. The possibility that Bruriah’s sister might be sexually violated and ultimately never redeemed from a life of subjugation to Roman men, however, risks irreversible transformation that cannot be tolerated. This story closes with Rabbi Meir fleeing to Babylonia to escape the Roman discovery of his ruse.[7]

The rabbis who masqueraded as Romans knew that there is something specifically feminine about dressing up. Women in all eras dressed up to identify themselves as members of a particular social caste or community. They also masqueraded as other people to achieve a noble cause related to the salvation of their people. The rabbis may have been aware that the act of disguise was regarded as a feminine activity. For this reason, stories about rabbinic masquerade pertain to themes of gender and sexuality, and feature men wearing unusual disguise.

While the texts discussed thus far depict its characters as masquerading, sometimes it is the text itself that masquerades. Rather than preserving stories about Jews dressing up as outsiders, this kind of literature passes itself off as the product of a Greek or Roman writer. One popular example, called the Letter of Aristeas, was written by an Alexandrian Jew during the second century BCE. This document recalls the circumstances in which the Hebrew Bible was translated into the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures known as the Septuagint. It presents itself as a letter composed by a non-Jewish Greek official of Ptolemy’s court to his brother. Masquerading as a Greek, the Jewish writer has the first-person protagonist extol the Jews’ Hebrew scriptures by legitimizing Jewish wisdom and practice as rational, admirable, and correlative with Greek values. The author devotes only a few verses to the actual translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. His main desire is to amplify the good relations between Greeks and Jews, and between diasporan Jews and Judean Jews. He therefore speaks on behalf of those outside his own diasporan Jewish community, and has these individuals praise the diasporan Jewish community as legitimate. Had the writer of Aristeas presented himself as a Jewish man writing to his brother about the translation of the Hebrew Bible, the story would have no element of surprise or tension. The novella’s power derives from the fact that a Greek person tells the story.

Conclusion: Remember When We Were Talking About Clueless?

Like the Letter of Aristeas, Clueless is a story that masquerades. Whereas Aristeas and other pseudepigraphic texts identify themselves as the work of outsiders, but invite their readers to easily see past the veneer, Clueless  passes itself off as an innocent and charming story. It is only upon closer inspection that the movie reveals itself to be an incisive representation of the Jewish encounter with American modernity. Like the women of ancient Jewish texts, the women in Clueless are models of masquerade. Of course, Cher’s aims are more provincial than the aims of heroines in the Second Temple period. Judith and Esther disguise themselves to save their people from catastrophe, while Cher masquerades in order to be accepted. And yet, Cher’s story is as Jewish as the stories of Judith and Esther—and the masquerading rabbis. Jewish survival and dignity may not be at the foreground of Cher’s mind, but there is nothing more Jewish than the raw desire for survival and acceptance.

By the end of Clueless, Cher gives up her masquerade. She settles into her recognizably Jewish home, reconciles with her father, and romantically connects with her ex-stepbrother (the movie abandons the farce of over-the-top materialism, but never gives up on the absurdity of teenage love). No matter how hard Cher – and her Jewish viewers – try to forget it, Jewish identity runs deep in the veins. Masquerade is always possible, but true transformation never is. The rabbis told us this truth nearly two thousand years ago.

[1] One of the humorous ironies of Judith’s story takes place when the elders of Bethulia, suffering under the Assyrian siege, rejoice upon seeing Judith dressed up. The author tells us that “When they saw her transformed in appearance and dressed differently, they were very greatly astounded at her beauty and said to her, ‘May the God of our ancestors grant you favor and fulfill your plans, so that the people of Israel may glory and Jerusalem may be exalted.’” Judith 10:7–8. These elders have no idea what Judith is about to do, but they recognize that she is about to approach the Assyrian camp in disguise in order to save the Jewish people.

[2] Judith was likely written in Hebrew, but shares stylistic features with the Greek version of Esther. Judith 10:1–4; Greek Esther Addition D.

[3] 1 Macc. 1:14–15.

[4] 2 Macc. 7:21; cf. 2 Macc. 7:8, 27. I have often wondered why this story does not mention the woman’s husband. My assumption is that the writer expects his readers to understand that the woman’s husband has assimilated into Hellenism, and that she has been left to care for her sons. One man has fallen prey to Hellenism, and has undergone a total internal transformation. One woman has resisted it, and resists masquerades of all kinds.

[5] Lev. Rabbah 32; Pesikta Zutrata Deut. 41a.

[6] According to Sara Ronis, rabbinic costuming does not succeed because the rabbis cannot conceal their true identities. Ronis uses the metaphor of superhero costumes, but I prefer the image of masquerade since it speaks to the superficial nature of these disguises. Sara Ronis, “It’s A Roman…It’s a Persian…It’s Rabbi Meir! Secret Identities and the Rabbinic Self in the Babylonian Talmud,” Journal of Jewish Identities 14.1 (2021): 83–110.

[7] It then offers another possibility for why Rabbi Meir fled: perhaps it was due to the “incident” involving his wife Beruriah. This is a likely allusion to the tradition preserved by Rashi (ad loc.) that Beruriah was seduced by one of R. Meir’s students at R. Meir’s behest, as a kind of purity test, and after Beruriah succumbed to his seductions, she committed suicide. The story thus becomes a retroactive explanation for how Rabbi Meir ended up in Babylonia.

Malka Z. Simkovich is the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and the director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016), and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism (2018), which received the 2019 AJL Judaica Reference Honor Award. Simkovich’s articles have been published in the Harvard Theological Review and the Journal for the Study of Judaism, as well as on online forums such as The Lehrhaus and the Times of Israel. Her upcoming book, Letters From Home: The Creation of Diaspora in Jewish Antiquity, will be published in June 2024.