Looking for a Jewess Role Model

11 May

Yesterday, my sister sent me a link to an article by Dvora Meyers called “I Miss Amy Winehouse.”  My initial thought was, which one?

Though Amy Winehouse isn’t the only one to have suffered from this fate, she has become a poster-girl for the train-wreck of fame, and is as well known for her fight with drug addiction as she is for her music.

But the article’s original title from when it was posted over at Tablet Magazine get’s a little closer to the point:

Who is the modern day Jewish girl? Who are our role models? And is Winehouse, despite her flaws, still more “compelling” than those other “nice Jewish girls?”

I have to admit, I’ve been wondering this myself for awhile. Ever since I took a class on Jewish American Drama (with the aforementioned “Is it good for the Jews?” professor) I feel like I’ve been looking for it. Why? Because in this class, I learned where a lot of our ideas about the performance of what it means to be Jewish.

To be honest, as someone who is hardly religious but stilll proud to be a Jew, I’ve often struggled with my own actions. And often find myself asking: am I Jewish enough?

And yes, there is an emphasis on the performative aspects here. But what do we study in culture but the performative aspects of our identities?

I personally, was most interested in the idea of the exotic Jewess: the exoticized fetishized Jewish woman. This stereotype, though loaded with negative associations, is, for obvious reasons, extremely compelling. And the article touches on this, whether or not the author realizes it, lauding Winehouse as a woman who uses her sexuality to an almost masculine level to become the dominant figure in most of her relationships.

While the article views this as something purely positive, we have to keep in mind that this stereotype did not originally exist as something to empower Jewish women. Instead, it existed as a kind of warning to men: be with a Jewish woman and prepare to be emasculated like those effeminate Jewish men.

But in a world that is showing more and more women owning their sexuality in a way that confronts sexuality, I think the article is most apt in saying that:

This masculinity that she looks for in men but almost loathes in herself is manifest in her appearance-the bouffant hairstyle, the breasts (surgically enhanced) propped up to her collarbone, the Cleopatra-style eyeliner, the exceptionally tight vintage dresses. All of it represents an exaggerated form of femininity, which is the hallmark of drag. To dress up as Winehouse, a queen would not have to embellish at all. It would not be possible to make the hair any bigger or take the boobs any higher. Her look is prepackaged drag. If she accuses men of acting like women then she too is masquerading-a woman who dresses like a man who dresses like a woman.

In a way, Winehouse’s persona thus delves into a queering of what we associate with gender roles by transforming her pin-up looks into a drag show.

Though the article meanders around the topics of Winehouse’s music and issues with addiction, as well as how she relates to Jewish music and Jewish culture, I think the sticking point is a poignant quote from her father about her music:

Every song Amy writes is like … [He sticks an imaginary knife into his substantial tum and circles around as though he is eviscerating his entrails.] In Yiddish, it’s ‘schlapping your kishkas [your insides] out.’ Amy’s a great one for schlapping her kishkas-because every song is, like, heartbreak … sorrow … depression.

What’s most Jewish about Winehouse is her torment. Even if she is the one tormenting herself. That ever-present Jewish guilt is what really rings clear throughout her music. One might even call it the guilt of a survivor, from someone who has survived themself.

So, has Amy Winehouse fulfilled the role of “role model?” Maybe not. But if my other choices are Natalie Portman (née Hershlag) or the Pee-Queen Sarah Silverman, I have to say that I would also choose Winehouse. Because hers is a story to learn from, and what else is Judaism about if not learning?

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2 Responses to “Looking for a Jewess Role Model”

  1. Alex Tucker May 11, 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    For too long, the only depictions of Jewish women have been of the Phillip Roth/Woody Allen variety: they were either materialistic, spoiled princesses who grudgingly provided sexual favors for bling, or overbearing mothers who were relentless guilt machines. An entire generation of Jewish men married Gentiles because of the allure of The Other, but they missed out. Almost every Jewish woman I’ve known has been warm, kind, smart, funny – essentially everything popular culture says they aren’t. Attitudes have shifted somewhat, and I think the tide has finally turned. (Based on purely anecdotal evidence, of course.)

    • redshana May 11, 2011 at 4:09 pm #

      I think this is a good point though because obviously as a dude, you are the one these ideas of sexuality and sexiness are often marketed to. And I think I’m okay with some of the exoticization of the Other as long as it’s something that we are aware of and let become empowering for those who are exoticized. Obviously, a very slippery slope… both for the Shiksa Goddess and the Jewess…

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