What does the sad death of Amy Winehouse (Aleha haShalom) tell us about the ways in which Judaism is perceived within British society?
The late Ms Winehouse and I inhabited different worlds. It's not simply that we came from distinct generations. She lived a lifestyle that I would never have lived and purveyed a musical genre of which I am ignorant. But she was Jewish and so am I. It is this identity that has compelled me to take an interest in the manner in which the media reported her death and the arrangements that were being made for her funeral.
Let me remind you of some of the bizarre media stories to which this high-profile Jewish death gave rise. One report insisted that her family was apparently intent on observing the shiva as soon as her death was announced. The NME.com website (New Musical Express) reported on July 25 that Sharon Osbourne had told an American chat show that her daughter Kelly was at the Winehouse family home right then "doing shiva". But Mrs Osbourne was in good company, because no less a news-sheet than the Daily Mirror had, that same day, instructed its readers that although the funeral had not yet taken place "the family have begun the first stage of mourning, 'sitting shiva'." Whereas the truth is and always was that the seven (shiva) days of "confined mourning" commence only after the funeral has been concluded.
In the frenzy of publicity following the discovery of Ms Winehouse's body, many media outlets spoke of an "Orthodox" funeral service, and my recollection is that some of them continued to do so even as it became clear that what was to take place was a cremation. I do not intend here to launch into a discussion of the Orthodox ban on cremations - though I must reveal en passant that, while the ban is unequivocal, some reputable halachic expositors have ruled that it is in fact in order for ashes to be interred in an Orthodox cemetery. But of course such an interment - let alone the actual cremation - would not have been incorporated within a customary "Orthodox" funeral service. So why did The Times (July 27) report as an "Orthodox" funeral service one that quite clearly wasn't?
Then we have the report that, because Ms Winehouse had adorned herself with tattoos, these would have to be removed before her funeral. Again I turn to the Daily Mirror: "Amy will be buried today or tomorrow… Orthodox Jewish tradition dictates that tattoos are cut off first, but it's unclear if this will be the case with her inkings."
We are not doing enough to educate non-Jews as to what it means to be Jewish
Granted, the Mirror later removed this piece of nonsense from its website. But from whence had it originated? And, even if the funeral had been Orthodox, as a former member of a chevra kadisha I can assure you that no tattoo (or "inking") would have been "cut off" first. The idea is outrageous.
Now you might say that I am being outrageous myself. Can we honestly expect non-Jewish society, within which we live as a tiny minority, to understand the minutiae of Jewish funeral arrangements? That (save for the brit milah of an uncircumcised male corpse) the bodies of the Jewish dead undergo no surgical procedure prior to burial? That Orthodox Jews bury but never cremate? And that a shiva only commences after the interment (or cremation) has taken place?
As a matter of fact I happen to think that we can, or at the very least that we can expect those who chose to comment publicly upon Ms Winehouse's funeral to have taken the trouble to check their facts first. And I further believe that the fact that some of them apparently chose not to do so encapsulates a troubling lesson.
I believe there is a seamless continuum linking amusing and then progressively ever more offensive tittle-tattle about Jews - from the myth that Charedi couples have sex through a hole in a sheet and the belief that "gefilte fish" refers to an exotic marine species - to much darker ideas, culminating in the libel that Jews murder and mutilate non-Jews to use their blood for religious purposes.
I also believe that there is an antidote to this pernicious continuum - namely, education. And I further believe that we -you and I - are currently not doing enough to educate our non-Jewish hosts as to what it means to be Jewish and to practise a Jewish faith.