I’ll miss Amy Winehouse. Aside from her obvious talent and potential, at her best Winehouse represented an energetic thrust of the middle finger to the “nice Jewish girl” stereotype.
Before things in her life went haywire, Winehouse had a unique public persona that was sexy and tough and wild and dark. She was the complete opposite of Shoshanna Lowenstein, the name a boyfriend gave my nerdy alter ego that tends to surface in unflattering photos. I knew what he was referencing there: the girl who took her Hebrew name, who wore her headgear to school, who was picked last for teams, whose hair grew horizontally, who had braces and glasses at the same time, who stuttered around boys and never drew the passion of the quarterback, who lusted after blond shiksa cheerleaders. Sarah Jessica Parker in Square Pegs, just say. Smart, funny, a great personality. But sexy? No way.
Winehouse upended every nice Jewish girl cliché, every Jewish American Princess perception. She was unique. Natalie Portman, in contrast, seems like a lovely girl with a good head on her shoulders who probably memorized her haftorah portion in the womb. Winehouse was a rebel. “There’s a Jew who kicks ass,” I thought when I first saw her perform.
Perceptions of female Jewish sexuality could use some ass-kicking. Every time I date a guy and we start to talk about sex, I have to hear about how Jewish girls supposedly don’t put out, don’t give oral sex and don’t like kink. And this comes from Jewish men too. Ask a Jewish male friend if he knows a joke about Jewish girls and blowjobs; he’ll probably tell you three.
I once had a friend who was getting married to a woman he said would be his “perfect Jewish wife and mother.” And indeed she was beautiful, classy, family-oriented, sweet and generous. A terrific woman with solid values. My friend, however, had a bit of a wild side, sexually, which he didn’t feel she understood. He didn’t see this as an obstacle. He suggested that if he needed to get wild at some point down the road, he’d do so outside of the marriage, away from the mother of his children (he now has several).
At the time he told me this, I was worried about his happiness. But now I wonder about it from her point of view: Was she really as conventional as he believed? Or was she simply behaving that way because she knew her “nice Jewish girl” qualities appealed to him?
Perhaps the “nice Jewish girl,” like the virgin-whore, is wishful thinking; there’s so much pressure on Jewish men to be nice Jewish boys, and you can only do that with the right kind of wife. What good Jewish son wants to bring home a girl who’s a blowjob queen? Better if everyone thinks Jewish girls just don’t do that.
Funny thing, though: Judaism is fairly sex-positive. We can have sex without guilt, without thinking about sin. We can have sex merely because it’s fun, and no rabbi—unless he’s Orthodox—will tell us otherwise. In fact, my favorite Jewish joke about the religion has a blowjob in it—but it’s incidental to the punch line. Now that’s a permissive comedic tradition.
Winehouse had an interesting relationship to her Judaism. When she mentioned it, she’d acknowledge that it read as a contradiction to her public wild side. In 2007 she told an Australian newspaper, “I love parties and rock ’n’ roll, but secretly I’m never happier than when I’m cleaning. In 10 years’ time I’m gonna be looking after my husband and our seven kids. … At the end of the day, I’m a Jewish girl.” In other words, a Jewish girl doesn’t act like this.
But whatever she planned to be in the future, she was a tough, complex woman who wrote songs about sex and love and passion that were anything but nice. She was raw, and brave, and both of those things made her vulnerable. I dearly wish she’d lived long enough to make matzo ball soup for her granddaughters. She could have given them wise counsel about what it really means to be a Jewish girl.