More than a handful of years ago, in a vainglorious attempt to accelerate the de-nerd-ification of Hillel, there was a push to identify the least nerdy of contemporary icons who happened to be Jewish. It didn’t matter how much they connected to us, we were going to claim our connection to them. The allure of a name like Winehouse, especially after Grammy award honors, was the new source of pride for the next generation of Jews. As much as Hillel heralded her Jewishness six years ago, that was then. Now she no longer counts. Not cool enough.
This whole issue of cool versus nerdy is possibly the falsest, lamest, and stupidest of dichotomies. For in undergraduate terms, a nerd might be defined as a student who appreciates her parents, makes good grades, and doesn’t get comatose on weekends. She may avoid piercings, tatoos, and prefer not to explore her sexuality, by allowing multiple partners to use her as a map to Nirvana. The nerd doesn’t find it the least bit funny that there was a website lottery devoted to guessing when Ms Winehouse would finally peg out for the grand prize of an iPod.
Having values, and being grounded is definitely not cool, but it defines what most parents want for their children.
Hillel’s attempts at cool were never particularly successful with the kids to whom they wished to target. Chabad, however, by being themselves, seemed to be much more attractive to those cool bad boys and girls.
Instead of the classic role models, Hillel went for edgy. They hired cool Jewishly ignorant kids to attract other cool Jewishly ignorant kids, to engage them in a Judaism that was as foreign as Zoroastrianism–but they were definitely not nerdy. It is probably not great to define one’s mission on another’s terms.
It was, however, great for many of those who were hired because many of them got genuinely interested in Jewish communal service, and a surprising percentage are still serving in Jewish organizations throughout the country. In the end, many have come to be educated Jews. The law of unintended consequences sometimes works in a people’s favor.
The early Zionists defined a new Jew, and brought thousands into their ranks. It seemed to work better in Israel than in the diaspora where the once strongly felt cultural common denominator diminishes with time. It is pathetic to hitch your wagon to one who makes not going into rehab an anthem. And what about poor, tragic Amy Winehouse who was only celebrated Jewishly when she was topping the charts while bottom feeding with a level of degeneracy that was virtually impossible to emulate.
Then, the glitter was gone, the star appeal was replaced with missed performances, and one debauched spectacle after another until finally, and, unspectacularly, at the age of twenty-seven, she died. This time, no comment from Hillel. What was once cool had become cold.
Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and yes, Amy Winehouse, all died at age twenty-seven. The gematria of twenty-seven is “ZaCH” which means pure. In the Torah, olive oil used to light the menorah must be pure.
All of these imperfect, deeply flawed vessels, voiced a purity of spirit that is the unique province of music. Their brief lives struggling between thanatos and eros, with death emerging as the inevitable victor will continue to be remembered, not so much for the way they lived or died, but for the light that shined from their voices, their guitars, and their songs.
If we Jews piggybacked on Amy’s celebrity taking pride in sharing the same roots, the very least we can do is take a moment and acknowledge her passing. Goodbye Amy, what never left you alone in life, may it leave you now in death. Peace.