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Ruth Starkman

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For Amy Winehouse, Who Almost Made Hanukkah Cool

Posted: 08/01/11 01:54 PM ET

I can't claim to have always been a faithful fan of the tragically and newly late Amy Winehouse. I'm one of those who for several years ached while looking at pictures of her crying in the streets of London wearing a red bra and bloody ballet slippers. I cringed at her baby mouse YouTube video with fellow stoner Pete Doherty. Eventually I stopped scouring the news for her running amok without her beehive wig, stealing resort guests' drinks in St. Lucia. Following her career only sporadically, I was saddened but not surprised to see her booed off the stage in Belgrade this June.

It's uncanny now to sit at my window and hear my neighbors' baby-filled stationwagon pull up blasting her hit "Rehab" from her Grammy-winning album "Back to Black." Most jarring though, is to hear the naysayers claim she should have never won that Grammy for mocking addiction. Yet, among the many things such detractors fail to grasp, is that the mocking Amy served up, she aimed at herself, and she dished it with a courage and depth few others possess.

Amy Winehouse was such a survivor, I quite overlooked her vulnerability and thus was horribly jolted to read her of death alone in her Camden house on July 23, 2011. Maybe her parents and her friend Russell Brand had always known that the dreaded phone call would come someday with the news of her death. But I had erroneously begun to believe she had some mysterious supply of feline lives. Perhaps I imagined she'd have the luck of other stars, and that someone would become her conservator, not let her out to pubs anymore, and hold on so tightly to her life and career, she might just survive. But Amy was not like others. Scrappy, Semitic, scarred by life and her own hands, Amy Winehouse died alone among her many caretakers.

Most chilling for me is the shot of her big strong body-guards holding the tiny box of her ashes.

Having bought her first album, Frank, in 2004, I was charmed to see the cover photo of a fresh young, perhaps slightly zaftig Jewish woman, a yiddisha maedel with a yiddisha punim (translation: a voluptuous Jewish woman with "Jewish face," as my parents would have said). I liked that she looked different, had her own invented beauty and wasn't super thin. (See before photo). This image perfectly suited her sound: the bold, open vowels and pointy Dinah Washington diction. I remember catching an interview with her in 2006. She'd already shrunk herself into skinny chick in cut offs and tank top mode (see after photos). Wearing her signature bee-hive, she confided it "wasn't a happy beehive" that day. She was charming and chatty, revealing she was really an "old Jewish man" in her musical taste. Another time, the interview wasn't pretty. Long pauses punctuated the painful two-minute conversation, for which she apologized and assured me that she "was sh** at giving interviews," as though thoroughly convinced she had no powers of public enchantment at all. This exchange belied the occasional hopeful photos of her looking clear-eyed and confident when she came back from St. Lucia, and more recently with her new on-off man, Reg Traviss. "On-Off" may be the salient term here, because that was the nature of Amy, and perhaps the reaction of those who tried to love her.

Psychiatrists explain that the drugs Amy did were so damaging to her brain that she lost whatever little impulse control she had and sobriety had become too painful for her. Others have considered whether she was just too delicate a flower to cope with the jungle of fame and commercial success.

Still, for her faithless Jewish fans like me, she held the weak promise of cultural redemption. Or, if redemption is too strong a word, perhaps "cultural relief" will do in this context. Since 2008 I've been waiting for that rumored album with Hanukkah songs on one side and Christmas on the other, which she'd considered making with producer-pal Mark Ronson, who reportedly said:

"She's got songs called, like, 'Kosher Kisses' and 'Alone Under the Mistletoe ... ' unfortunately, us Jews have nothing that cool to listen to. So we should do something."

Just the promise of this diffident chanteuse making cool holiday music that Jews like me had never known, was enough to keep me hoping and sometimes checking the news around early December.

No such luck, but I still wonder if any of it will be released posthumously, as it has been reported she has 12 finished songs.

At a gig honoring Amy after her funeral, Ronson reported the wisdom of the Rabbi who officiated: it is not the length of one's life that matters, but the deeds.

However Amy Winehouse scattered her uneven deeds around the planet, her gifts, her special sound, her will to reinvent art and life and still keep her own spirit made the world a better place. That is redemption enough.