Amy Winehouse cooking chicken soup? This incongruous image of the famously bohemian singer is conjured up by a Claudia Roden Jewish cookery book. An inscription inside the front cover reads: ‘In case of loss of faith, turn to page 75.’ It is signed by Winehouse’s brother Alex. And on page 75 is a recipe for faith-affirming Jewish chicken soup.
The book is one of many poignant exhibits in a show opening on July 3 at the Jewish Museum in Camden. Co-curated by Amy’s brother and sister-in-law, it’s an examination of her Jewish family origins which feels quite unique: in the past Winehouse’s life has been raked over in (often intrusive) detail, but surprisingly little has been written about her Jewish background.
Initially, the family approached the museum to suggest loaning one of the singer’s dresses to tie in with the second anniversary of her death in July this year and her thirtieth birthday in September. ‘Her roots are Jewish (through her parents Mitch and Janice) and Camden was home for so much of her life,’ says curator Liz Selby. ‘The more we talked, the more it became about her roots.’ The exhibition that grew out of that dialogue is narrated through the eyes of Alex, 34, who provides a series of candid and affectionate captions recalling an upbringing that wasn’t particularly religious but was suffused with traditions that most British Jews would recognise. Winehouse grew up celebrating the Friday night Shabbat meal with her family, and regularly visited the family barber shop in the East End (where Mitch’s family settled after emigrating from Belarus in the nineteenth century).
Among dozens of previously unexhibited photographs, one shows a nine-year-old Winehouse peering pensively out from a family group at her brother’s bar mitzvah. Old black-and-white photos introduce her glamorous East End grandmother Cynthia (who once dated Ronnie Scott) in Minnie Mouse platform shoes, thick lipstick and fringe – the influence is easy to spot.
Among other personal items, there are dresses, including the blue sequinned number worn at Glastonbury in 2008; books, ranging from a Snoopy paperback to a hardback on serial killers; and a red jumper from the Sylvia Young Theatre School (which Winehouse attended for two years until she was expelled at 14) with her name tag sewn into it. Sections of an essay written for the Sylvia Young entrance audition are interspersed among the exhibits. The final excerpt finishes with the plea: ‘I want people to hear my voice’ [and remember] ‘me… for just being me’.
For someone who died so tragically, this is an exhibition bursting with warmth, life and affection. In the words of her big brother, ‘This is a snapshot of a girl who was to her deepest core simply a little Jewish kid from north London with a big talent.’