Live from the Lilith Blog

January 24, 2008 by

But Really, How Jewish IS Amy Winehouse?

Q. Amy Winehouse…

a) makes pretty great music.
b) is a crack-smoking trainwreck.
c) is Jewish.

The answer, as you probably know, is all three, and the media is obsessed with each of these factoids. After the release of a video of Winehouse doing various drugs was greeted with requisite shock and a reprise of “is she or isn’t she in rehab?”, I started thinking a little more about (c). In the face of the singer’s unraveling (about which there’s hardly need for yet another commentary), it’s become impossible to ignore just how psyched everyone seems to be that Amy Winehouse is Jewish.

There are different motivations behind this, of course. Both the ravenous press and Winehouse herself have joyfully portrayed her Jewish identity as a bizarre contrast with her bad girl image. The Jewish community, ever-eager to claim a celeb for the team, has managed to boast and sneer about her at the same time. Winehouse is the proud – and in many ways, welcome — antithesis of the “nice Jewish girl,” but since she does tend to identify with two out of the three elements of that little saying, both she and the media like to keep her options open.

Here are the oft-repeated basics. Back in 2004, The Guardian was one of many publications to pin her as “a slight 20-year-old Jewish girl from north London” and The Telegraph wrote, “Done up to the nines (lustrous lipstick, dark mascara, long black eyelashes, thick black hair), Winehouse looks every inch the Jewish princess.” In March of 2007, Rolling Stone‘s blog noted that “Ms. Rehab might in fact be the highest-debuting-female-solo-British-tall-Jewish-black-haired-tattoed-with-a-birthmark-on-her-left-arm artist ever to make the U.S. Billboard charts.” In May, the Toronto Star chimed in: “The beehived, heavily tattooed Winehouse might be a wee Jewish girl from North London, but she can snarl and wail like Etta James or Eartha Kitt.” From a Rolling Stonecover story that same month: “Those who have only heard her voice express shock upon seeing the body that produces it: The sultry, crackly, world-weary howl that sounds like the ghost of Sarah Vaughn comes from a pint-size Jewish girl from North London.” And from the Washington Post: “Winehouse has an exceptional voice that’s even more striking when you catch a glimpse of its source: a wispy, heavily tattooed young Jewish woman with a mile-high beehive for a hairdo and a Gothic level of mascara caked onto her face. It almost doesn’t compute.”

What a study in contrasts!

When she’s prodded to comment on her bad girl ways, Winehouse tends to bring up her Jewishness herself, offering it as a reassuring counterpoint to the rest of her image. “She says what she really wants to do in 10 years’ time is to settle down and be a good Jewish mum,” Australia’s Sunday Times reported last summer. The paper went on to quote the singer as saying, “I would like to uphold certain things, but not the religious side of things, just the nice family things to do. At the end of the day, I’m a Jewish girl.”

The news that Winehouse planned to have a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony and (bonus!) convinced her husband to convert, had the press slobbering.

After music producer Mark Ronson laughed off rumors that he and Winehouse were having an affair, he shared this highly pertinent information: “Amy makes a really nice meatball dinner. She’s good at making Jewish mother food.” More recently, he announced that he and Winehouse may team up to do a holiday album that will include ditties with names like “Kosher Kisses.”

Because all of this is not enough, the Jewish Chronicle recently posted a short write-up entitled “How Jewish is Amy Winehouse?”**

In what I can only assume is a very (very, very) lame attempt to be funny, the piece manages to embrace stupid stereotypes in the name of policing Jewish identity. In the “pro” column, “Amy is on record as saying she loves her grandma, she likes to make roast chicken on a Friday night and looks forward to a matzah and edam sandwich after an evening out.” On the con side, she has all those tattoos “(of naked ladies, no less)” and, you know, drinks a lot. The verdict? “Once she comes out of rehab, we’ll have her back,” the Chronicle reassures. “So we say she is 78% Jewish.”

What a relief! Now we know.

**”How Jewish is…” looks to be a recurring feature at the Chronicle, which also put French President Nicolas Sarkozy* on the hot seat. The results? His grandfather was Jewish (before he converted to Catholicism – but “we have made a halachic decision not to recognise it,” says the Chronicle)! He can boast of family members who died in the Holocaust! And woah, his girlfriend Carla Bruni once recorded a song written by Serge Gainsbourg, a bonafide Jewish person!!!

–Eryn Loeb

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  • http://www.jewess.canonist.com R.H.F.

    Hi Eryn,
    Welcome to Lilith!
    You point out that Winehouse’s Jewishness is often remarked upon as a note of contrast with: 1.) her powerful and soulful singing voice, and 2.) her “crack-smoking trainwreck” ways.
    It seems like many of the references you mention use “Jewish” instead of “White.” “Jewishness” implies “whiteness” but it also implies even whiter-than-whiteness. And this usage is based on really prejudiced assumptions:
    1.) It assumes that white people are not soulful or tough
    2.) that Jews are even less soulful and tough
    3.) that only people of color are crack-smoking trainwrecks
    4.) that Jews in particular are not crack-smoking trainwrecks.
    I wonder why people have these assumptions (particularly about soulfulness) and whether others think they’re based in reality…

  • http://www.thegeminiweb.com Rhea

    I had no idea she was Jewish until after the Grammys I was talking about her with a friend of mine from England and she told me Amy was Jewish. It made me proud. Also, I thought I had detected something in her face that said ‘Jewess’!

  • sisson

    I believe that Ms. Winehouse will indeed have her Jewish babies and I wish her the very best in gathering her dreams.
    I was left alive by God because all I ever wanted was kids in the Synagogue with my last name and I was a way sick crackhead once too. As long as she keeps the goal of J kids and marriage as her priority she will have her back watched.
    She obviosly has some decent parents.
    Go Amy Winehouse!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  • Ada

    I like how members of the Jewish community try to make her seem better then she is, she is a media attention crazed completely off her head junkie who clearly couldn’t care any less about her music or fans now. Too many times she has refused to go into drug rehab. If I was Jewish I would be ashamed to see Amy labelled as being Jewish. It sends out such a bad image.

  • The Saint

    Who cares about this girl? What has she ever done for anyone, save herself?

  • Miss Rehab

    Being “Jewish” as you have polarized it to be, is not just about religion. It’s a cultural identity and ethnicity also, do some reading up on their history to gain a deeper perspective.

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  • Jasmin

    sisson says:
    February 14, 2008 at 6:15 am

    “I believe that Ms. Winehouse will indeed have her Jewish babies and I wish her the very best in gathering her dreams.
    I was left alive by God because all I ever wanted was kids in the Synagogue with my last name and I was a way sick crackhead once too. As long as she keeps the goal of J kids and marriage as her priority she will have her back watched.
    She obviously has some decent parents.
    Go Amy Winehouse!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

    Sadly, you were wrong. She was found dead today.

  • Dee

    First of all “Jewish” is a religion.” Jewish People come from different parts of the world and I am tired of people grouping all Jewish people as an ethnic group. Amy Winehouse may have been Jewish but she was also British. She was born in Britain and lived there her entire life. She identified with Jewish tradition as many Jews do who are not necessarily religious. Would you say an American Jew is exactly the same as a Jewish person from London, England. No way. We become more like the people we are surrounded by. She was Jewish, I am Jewish, American, and I am proud of her and her beautiful voice, identify with her Jewish background re religion and so sad that she died so young. Another one gone too soon and so much to live with but haunted by problems we will never understand.

  • Dee

    I just want to say if she was not Jewish would the headlines have read “British Christian” found dead. Let her RIP and pray for her because she was troubled and so so talented. What a beautiful voice. My heart breaks for her but she is at peace now.

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  • Lane

    I will miss Amy Winehouse’s music. RIP . May her family and friends who remain feel comfort and peace.

  • emil lime

    I am baffled why it would appear that so many Jews are falling over themselves to
    claim AW for the ‘club’. Apart from the accident of birth, exactly how close was she to the community? It seems to me that she went out of her way to create for herself a totally alien image and persona: I mean, look at those ghastly tatoos and super-weird appearance. A wonderful role model for the children of Israel? I don’t think so.

  • Holly

    We claim her because we’re not like the Christians who say that every christian that does something horrible is “not a real Christian”…

    you are jewish if your mother is jewish. Her mother is Jewish…therefore…she’s Jewish. She’s not a fake Jew…therefore…she’s a real jew.

    How GOOD a Jew, how TRADITIONAL a jew, how much of a role model she is for young Jews is deeply in question.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that she WAS A JEW.

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  • ירדן כהן

    יהיה זכרה ברוך .. ותאמינו לי שזה לא בגלל שהיא יהודיה היא הייתה משתמשת בסמים או שותה אלכוהול
    זה בגלל שהיא גדלה מחוץ לישראל . אם היא הייתה גולדת בישראל היום היא הייתה עוד חיה

  • http://none Miles A. Brumberg, D.O.

    I was not aware of the fact that Amy Winehouse was born of Jewish parents. My wife however was aware of this when I told her about her death the other day. I probably have heard some of her songs on the radio but I was not a fan of her or her music. Obviously she had a following here in the United States as well as in England. My heart goes out to her family and her friends and her fans. When I talk to my patients about depression I always tell them about the poem and song entitled Richard Cory, the poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson and the song of the same name by Simon and Garfunkel. Richard Cory was rich and famous and had everything one could hope to have in life. The people who worked for him made very little money and lived miserable lives. Yet it was Richard Cory who killed himself and no one could explain why because he seemed to have it all. Any of the people who worked for him would have been more likely to commit suicide than he was because their lives were generally miserable compared to his. But by what reckoning; money , material possessions, family, friends and acquaintances. We don’t know if what happened to Amy Winehouse was a successful suicide or a death the medical examiners call a death by misadventure due to her drug use. She may not have intended to kill herself at all despite her substance abuse problems. The answer to that question may remain unanswerable.

  • Jorge

    Does anyone know what was the original name of the Winehouse family?

  • yoni

    As poster Holly said, if her mom was Jewish, Amy was Jewish, too. Enough said on that. Like it or not, many super-greats were Jews, in so many fields, in stark disproportion to their relatively tiny numbers as a people… like Buddy Rich on drums (no one before or since came even close to him on drums, technically or otherwise, obviously – check for yourselves. He was uniquely phenomenal), like George and and Ira Gershwin in composing, like many others. A question of “how” Jewish is/was someone is pure folly; if one was born to a Jewish mother, they are or were Jewish, period .

  • Barbara

    Rest In Peace Amy. Your voice and interpretations were the best ones I had ever heard. I will always love you. xxxxx