The Jewish life of Amy Winehouse

Beit Hatfutsot brings a London exhibit to Tel Aviv as part of its efforts to look at the wider Jewish experience

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

The late Amy Winehouse (photo credit: Festival Eurockéennes/Wikimedia Commons)
The late Amy Winehouse (photo credit: Festival Eurockéennes/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s hard not to feel saddened by “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,” the new exhibit at Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People at Tel Aviv University.

The exhibit is a look at the singer’s short life, which ended in 2011 when she died of alcohol poisoning, but there’s little to no mention of Winehouse’s tumultuous last years. She was 27 when she died, and spent the last five years of her life struggling with an eating disorder, canceling concerts due to erratic behavior, and having run-ins with the law due to her drug and alcohol abuse.

Her fans were left wondering what kind of music the talented, beehive-coiffed singer might have created beyond the two albums she did make. She won five Grammy awards for her 2007 album, “Back to Black,” and song and record of the year for “Rehab.”

And her family was left without their daughter and sister, the loud, rambunctious and talented woman that Winehouse had become.

The exhibit, which is borrowed from the Jewish Museum London, first came together when Alex Winehouse, Amy’s older brother, offered the museum one of her dresses and some kitchen magnets, said Orit Shaham Gover, the museum’s chief curator.

“It was just by chance,” she said.

The London museum’s curator, Elizabeth Selby, then worked with Alex Winehouse to gather a selection of items that described Amy’s rise to fame, as well as her deep Jewish roots and connection to London, where she was born, raised and lived. Alex Winehouse contributed most of the captions, offering an intimate feel to the descriptions of Amy Winehouse’s early childhood and upbringing.

The exhibit begins with her family tree — Winehouse’s great-grandfather immigrated to London from Belarus in the 1800s — focusing on her beloved grandmother Cynthia Winehouse, who shared certain features with Amy, including the singer’s arched, dramatic black eyebrows and larger-than-life personality.

Amy Winehouse's grandmother Cynthia. (Photo credit: Winehouse family)
Amy Winehouse’s grandmother Cynthia. (Photo credit: Winehouse family)

One of Winehouse’s first tattoos was a representation of her grandmother, a 1950s pinup etched on her right bicep. Her distinctive upper lip piercing, mimicking Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark, was all her own.

There are photos, quotes and an audio clip of Winehouse at the Sylvia Young Theatre School, which she attended from the age of 13 to 15, a display of her first guitar and part of her extensive sixties-era album collection.

A look at her closet — with her sequinned stilettos, ballet slipper shoes and polka-dotted dresses — offers a glimpse of Winehouse’s wardrobe. It’s hard not to juxtapose her size small tank-tops and dresses with the photos of Winehouse at the start of her career, when her body size was more average, and not as painfully gaunt as it was at the time of her death.

The music playing in the background includes the songs Winehouse loved, the soulful sounds of Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Winehouse was known for fusing soul and jazz, doo-wop and girl anthems in her woeful lyrics of romance and obsession.

Like any young woman, she had her collections, including retro furniture and Sudoku puzzle books, the backstage tags from every concert she performed, and a suitcase of family photos.

Amy Winehouse in concert, August 2007 (photo credit: CC BY-SA 3.0, by Massic80, Wikimedia Commons)
Amy Winehouse in concert, August 2007 (photo credit: CC BY-SA 3.0, by Massic80, Wikimedia Commons)

The exhibit ends with a short video of one of Winehouse’s 2006 performances in Dingle, Ireland, and a wall of yellow Post-its, as visitors are invited to write their thoughts about the singer.

The entire exhibition is something of a departure for the museum, which has focused in the past on replicas of Judaica and views of Jewish life. But as the museum begins an extensive renovation, it’s looking at new directions, said Dan Tadmor, the museum’s new CEO.

“We want to be the Jewish museum,” said Tadmor. “We’ll tell the whole story in its entirety, from Jewish concepts, ideas and achievements to successes and theories.”

The museum added their own section to the Amy Winehouse exhibit, titled “From the East End to Golders Green,” a brief look at the London shtetl that Winehouse’s ancestors moved to in the late 1800s through photos, video and quotations.

“It brings a mixed crowd,” said Shaham Gover. “We still get the ultra-Orthodox viewers, but now there are some students as well.”

With the start of the fall semester Sunday, Tel Aviv University students are invited to see the exhibit for free from Sunday, October 26 through Thursday, October 30. “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,” will be at Beit Hatfutsot through May 1, tickets cost NIS 42.

Robin Banerjee, Amy Winehouse’s bassist for a portion of her career, is currently in Israel after performing at the opening of the exhibit, and will be performing at Barby Tel Aviv on Thursday, October 23.

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