Claiming Amy Winehouse
by Sala Levin
The shocking, but not surprising, news of British singer Amy Winehouse’s death at the cursed age of 27 on Saturday seems to have touched an often-untapped nerve. The sad predictability of her death, the tragic sense it made in the context of her life is almost too much to bear. Behold, Amy Winehouse: the Jewish girl who went awry.
Winehouse’s notorious drug and alcohol addictions, her bizarre public behavior, the strange unsexiness of her hyper-sexualized persona—all of it made her everything a Jewish girl isn’t supposed to be. That sinewy woman with the overdone makeup and the gap between her front teeth singing about “F*ck Me Pumps“? She couldn’t be Jewish.
Jews famously love to claim members of the tribe. Alumni of my Jewish day school proudly boast that Natalie Portman—the Jewish girl du jour—briefly went to our alma mater when she was just little Natalie Hershlag. With her Harvard degree, Israeli citizenship, trendy and oh-so-ethical vegetarianism and, oh yeah, that Oscar, the inhumanly beautiful Portman is the paragon of Jewish nachas. We love her. We want a part of that glory. “She’s one of us,” we want to say, and do, loudly and frequently. We only whisper behind our palms about the likes of Aaron Needle and Sam Sheinbein, the one-time students at our school who murdered and dismembered a neighborhood man nearly 15 years ago.
An oft-quoted Talmudic phrase exhorts us that all of Israel are responsible for one another. It’s easy to remember this when we think of the Natalie Portmans of the world—who wouldn’t want to be responsible for her success? It is, of course, Amy Winehouse and those profoundly disturbed young killers who pose the thornier moral questions, who force us to see the grimmer side of ourselves. Jews, after all, are no less human than anyone else, no less susceptible to the powerful sway of drugs and alcohol or the perilous darkness of mental illness. Natalie Portman is us, but Amy Winehouse and Sam Sheinbein are us, too—lost souls, uncomfortable and unsaveable, but ours.