5 Facts About Amy Winehouse's Jewish Roots

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(RNS) Amy Winehouse’s dramatic eye makeup and iconic beehive weren’t the singer’s only fashion statements. Winehouse, who died four years ago Thursday (July 23), is back in the spotlight with the July 3 release of the documentary “Amy.” In it, she is frequently seen wearing a thick, gold Star of David pendant around her neck.

Director Asif Kapadia’s new film captures the British sensation’s short, explosive career before she died of alcohol poisoning at age 27. But what about her Jewish religious heritage? In the film, Nick Gatfield, the Island Records executive who signed Winehouse at age 18, describes her as “a classic North London Jewish girl,” but was she?

Here are five facts about the six-time Grammy Award winner’s Jewish upbringing:

1. She went to Hebrew school.

In an interview for totallyJewish.com, Winehouse recalled going to Hebrew school every Sunday as a child. Like many other Jews, she didn’t particularly enjoy it. Winehouse told her 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.”

2. Her family celebrated traditional Friday night dinners.

While Winehouse’s family wasn’t particularly religious, her father mentions in his memoir “Amy, My Daughter,” that they held weekly Shabbat dinners, to which Winehouse would sometimes bring friends. Winehouse’s first manager, Nick Shymansky, told the Los Angeles Jewish Journal that he attended Friday night dinners at Winehouse’s grandmother’s home.

3. Her brother described her as “a little Jewish kid from North London.”

The Jewish Museum London opened an exhibit in 2013 entitled “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,” which delved into Winehouse’s family history as far back as her great-great-grandfather’s immigration from Minsk, Belarus, in 1890. The exhibit has since traveled to Israel and the U.S., and will be temporarily located at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco starting Thursday.

In the opening caption for the exhibit, Winehouse’s brother Alex described the exhibit as “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.”

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

4. But she connected to Jewish family values more than religious practice.

“Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” has been criticized for overplaying Winehouse’s connection to her religion. Based on Winehouse’s own statements, this criticism may not be unfounded. Winehouse told totallyJewish.com, “Being Jewish to me is about being together as a real family. It’s not about lighting candles and saying a ‘brocha’ (blessing).”

5. When she died, her family sat shiva.

Amy Winehouse’s family undertook the traditional seven-day mourning period called a shiva. During that time, Jews typically refrain from shaving and changing clothes, while community members visit and pay their respects at the home of the bereaved.

Alex Winehouse reflected on the experience for The Guardian. “People sitting shiva should be in their 70s and 80s,” he said. “They shouldn’t be 31 years old and certainly not a 31-year-old who is sitting shiva for his 27-year-old sister.”

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