Remembering Amy Winehouse as the Jew She Was Not

The new Amy Winehouse exhibit at the Jewish Museum in London is a stroke of marketing genius, but there is actually very little to connect Amy herself with her Jewish side, and what there is seems almost contrived.

The Jewish Museum in London has never seen such queues. Dozens of visitors, many of them tourists from around the world, have been lining up over the last week to visit the museum’s new exhibition. Few, it appears, are Jewish. While some linger on the two lower floors, among the permanent exhibitions on Judaism and the history of Jews in Britain, most head straight for the third floor and the new exhibition – "Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait," devoted to the life and times of the most famous Jewish singer of her generation, who died two years ago this month at the age of 27.

Without doubt, the exhibition is a stroke of marketing genius, especially since the small and elegant museum is in the heart of Camden, a mecca for young tourists to London who are drawn to the colorful market, night clubs and bars of the neighborhood, which was Winehouse’s home for the last decade of her life. Many of her early gigs were at small venues around Camden and even after becoming an award-winning superstar, she was often seen drinking and occasionally deejaying at local pubs, many of which now have her picture up.

Fans still pay homage outside her last home in Camden Square, where she was found dead on June 23, 2011, of alcohol poisoning. The Jewish Museum will be a stop on the Amy Trail for the duration of the exhibition.

Which leads to the question, is a celebrity who happens to be Jewish necessarily a Jewish celebrity?

The Jewish Museum fulfills two roles – serving as the repository for the local community’s historical story, and educating the wider British public about what it means to be Jewish. It certainly does an excellent job of both, fitting into its rather cramped premises the different strands of Jewish experience in the British Isles since the Middle Ages, while paying respect to the many diverse voices of an increasingly fragmented community. But does the Amy Winehouse exhibit fit in with this narrative?

It's not called "A Family Portrait" for nothing. Winehouse’s elder siblings, Alex and Riva, contributed most of the exhibits and collaborated with the curator. And Alex, who himself features in many photographs and family stories, wrote most of the exhibition’s captions. He seems to have been very conscious of the need to keep the exhibition within the assigned context, writing in the opening caption that it is "a snapshot of a girl who was, to her deepest core, simply a little Jewish kid from North London with a big talent who, more than anything, just wanted to be true to her heritage.”

Quite a claim but does it stand up to reality? Winehouse was certainly never ashamed of her Jewishness, often performing with a large Star of David medallion, and for a time planning to go for drug rehabilitation in Israel. But her attitude toward her Jewish origins was hardly orthodox.

She once said during an interview that she had hated going to heder (Jewish Sunday school) and that her observance amounted to attending synagogue once a year on Yom Kippur "out of respect” and occasionally joining her family for the Passover seder. In the same interview she said that "being Jewish to me is about being together as a real family. It’s not about lighting candles and saying a bracha.”

Not that she planned her own Jewish family, saying that "Jewish men are off the agenda. I have a boyfriend who isn’t Jewish, because most of the time I don’t like Jewish men. I can’t be doing with guys who have been smothered by their mothers.”

Despite that, the exhibition tries to tether her firmly in a Jewish family story. Curated from her personal belongings, it occupies one medium-sized room and consists of part of her personal vinyl record collection, her books, some pieces of vintage furniture, and of course a sample of her eclectic clothes and shoes, including iconic dresses from performances.

The size is perhaps not surprising for an artist who flamed out at the age of 30, recording only two full albums. But the choice of pieces reflects more on the family than on Amy herself, and the elements of her life that remain absent are just as interesting as what is included.

There is nothing about her long battles with drug and alcohol addictions, nothing on her well-documented bulimia or any mention of the often tempestuous relationships within the family, even though they featured in her songs. This being a museum of Jewish history, we learn the story of her great-great-grandfather’s arrival from Minsk in 1890, about how the family followed the typical Jewish migration trajectory from the East End to North London. How the fathers had typical working-class occupations – barbers and cab drivers – before they transitioned, like most other London Jews, to the middle classes.

But there is practically nothing about her mother Janis’ side of the family, though we learn from the detailed family tree that she divorced father Mitch, the leading character in the commemoration of Amy since her death. It was Mitch, according to the exhibition, who gave her the love of singing, though her mother’s family included professional jazz musicians.

There is very little to connect Amy herself with her Jewish side, and what there is seems almost contrived: photos from Alex’s bar mitzvah; another photo of Amy in the uniform of the Jewish Lads' and Girls' Brigade, though it is almost impossible to imagine her belonging to any organization for long; and a copy of Claudia Roden’s classic "Book of Jewish Food" (given to her by Alex). But then these tenuous ties that bind are just as Jewish as the strictures of Orthodoxy.

The most moving exhibit is an essay she wrote about herself at the age of 12 in her application to the Sylvia Young Theater School. She wrote that "the only reason I have to be this loud is because you have to scream to be heard in my family,” and what is more Jewish than that? 

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