OPINION - The one thing everyone forgets when talking about Amy Winehouse

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

When Amy Winehouse died, her family sat shiva.  For seven days following the burial, Amy's parents and older brother observed the traditional mourning period in Judaism, as friends and community members visited the home to pay their respects.

I mention this because Amy, who shares a name and spelling with one of my sisters, was Jewish. But you would be forgiven for not knowing this amid the flurry of copy and content churned out for the opening of the biopic, Back to Black.

It's a telling oversight, because Amy was indelibly Jewish, albeit in a wholly unremarkable way. She was not especially religious. Amy hated attending Hebrew School every Sunday as a child, later telling one interviewer: “Every week I’d say, ‘I don’t want to go, dad, please don’t make me go.’ ... I never learnt anything about being Jewish when I went anyway.” Preach, sister.

Still, Amy, like many Jews of varying degrees of observance, celebrated traditional Friday night Shabbat dinners. She would dutifully go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, and attend the passover seder.

Amy's funeral in July 2011 took place at Edgwarebury Jewish cemetery in North London. The service was conducted by Frank Hellner, emeritus rabbi at Finchley Progressive Synagogue. So Far Away, a ballad by Carole King, the great Jewish-American singer-songwriter, was played after the service. Dare to listen and not feel something.

Winehouse lived and performed with a tattoo of her Jewish grandmother on her shoulder and the Star of David around her neck. The former tells of a connection to her family's history, the latter a statement of pride in her identity. Something I only learned she wore when the Star – perhaps the single clearest symbol of Judaism there is – that adorned her statue in Camden Market was covered with a sticker of a Palestinian flag earlier this year in an act of brazen antisemitism.

British Jews, like Jews around the world, have faced unprecedented levels of antisemitism since October 7, when Hamas crossed the border and killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians. It was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. Disturbingly, the peak of antisemitic incidents in this country took place in the immediate days after, suggesting that for many, this was a celebration of the Hamas massacre.

So I am squeamish at what appears to be the the erasure of Amy's Jewishness at a time when we're supposed to celebrate not only Amy's life, but the minority experience. As if her religion were some kind of inconvenient truth, perhaps even an embarrassment, especially now.

And I wonder to myself: if Amy were still with us, would those idolising her story, admiring her talent and imitating her rebellious smile embrace her Jewishness? Would they protest it? Or would they simply brush it under the carpet as something best not mentioned in polite company?

In my darker moments, a thought stops me in my tracks: now that we can all enjoy Back to Black and Seinfeld, now that the bagels and brisket are a mere Deliveroo away, is there any longer a need for the Jews?

The story of the Winehouses is a fairly typical British Jewish one. Escape from Eastern Europe (Amy's great-great-grandfather, Harris Winehouse, arrived in the UK from Belarus in 1890), move to the East End before settling in North London. It is a story told by the Jewish Museum London, in a 2013 exhibition entitled “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait".

Pictures included a fifteen-year-old Amy wearing the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade uniform. It was, her brother Alex said, 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.” Something her home town, especially now, seems all too eager to disregard.

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