Media coverage of the sudden though not entirely unexpected death of British R&B singer Amy Winehouse mentioned only in passing that she was Jewish. This says something in and of itself, but the truth is that Winehouse’s Jewish identity was always just below the surface of her fame, particularly among her Jewish fans.
Many young Jews, and especially those disposed to care about the cultural image of Jews in the Diaspora, seemed to take a kind of quiet pride in Winehouse and her edgy public persona. Here, at long last, was a female Jewish celebrity who not only refused to pretend to be a gentile but also seemed completely unconcerned with what non-Jews thought of her. She was unabashedly emotional, dysfunctional, sensuous, and outspoken.
In a recent article in Tablet, for example, writer Dvora Meyers declared “never mind nice Jewish girls like Natalie Portman,” and denounced “all of this earnest Jewish female goodness.” Instead, she singled out Winehouse for praise precisely because she was not the “nice Jewish girl” she was expected to be.
It’s this unrepentant behavior that signals Winehouse’s place in a very different line of Jewish women—not the “nice” ones who make you chicken soup when you’re sick or assure their sons that they’re the smartest boys in the world and any woman would be lucky to marry them. Winehouse’s ancestors are the biblical vixens: Dina, who slept with Shechem; Deborah, the biblical heroine; or, more recently, Monica Lewinsky, the “portly pepperpot” (as the New York Post dubbed her) who nearly ended Bill Clinton’s presidency. These women possessed sexuality so powerful and intoxicating that it influenced national and political outcomes.
In a sense, Winehouse was a Jewish icon for a new generation of Diaspora Jews. This generation has left behind the ancient debates about assimilation and peoplehood. They feel no sense of alienation from the non-Jewish people and cultures around them. They do not care what the goyim think. At least, that is how they like to see themselves.
The truth, of course, is more complicated, as Winehouse’s very public collapse demonstrates. Winehouse, everyone asserts, was both gloriously talented and horrendously self-destructive. Like so many before her, she squandered her talent and ultimately her life in favor of a hedonistic lifestyle of sex, drugs, and rock n’roll that eventually killed her. Many remarked upon her death that she had joined the “27 club,” putting her in the rarified company of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and other who all died – usually of drugs – at the age of 27.
But Winehouse does not quite fit into this company. Winehouse, much more than the others, consciously chose her self-destructive path. Unlike Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison, Winehouse did not come from a troubled family or a dysfunctional background and appears to have a strong and concerned circle of friends and relatives who did everything they could to bring her back from the edge.
Nonetheless, Winehouse refused to treat her manic depression, married a clearly dysfunctional and self-destructive man with whom she shared a mutually abusive relationship, and refused to involve herself seriously in a rehabilitation program despite numerous opportunities to do so.
Why did she make these choices? The answer, I think, can be found in the now famous change of appearance that occurred when Winehouse first became famous worldwide. Originally appearing as a relatively clean- cut young woman who allowed her talent to speak for itself, Winehouse seemed to change overnight into a tattooed, heavily made up mess with a beehive hairdo and impossibly heavy eyeliner.
There is a reason Winehouse chose this look. It is the classic image of the female R&B singer, and the lifestyle that accompanied it was as well. Winehouse seemed to want to live out the drug-addled lives of Billy Holliday and Janis Joplin. And, unfortunately, she succeeded. Amy Winehouse, in other words, was imitating. And she continued imitating right to the very bitter end.
Why did she do so? Why did a woman of such talents feel the need to become someone else, even when it cost her life? The answer, I think, is that she was conscious, acutely and painfully consciously, of the “nice Jewish girl” she did not want to be and was afraid of becoming. So she did everything possible to make sure she would never be a nice Jewish girl and she did so in the same way that Jews have done so for centuries: By imitating non-Jews.
It is possible, just possible then, that Amy Winehouse is indeed the personification of her Jewish generation, or at least of its dysfunctions. A generation whose pretenses of comfort with their place in the Diaspora and in non-Jewish society are perhaps just that: pretenses. It may be that Winehouse’s need to destroy what she once had been, so desperate that it resulted in what was, essentially, a slow-motion suicide, is secretly shared by that same generation of Diaspora Jews who idolized her as an icon of belonging.