BERKELEY, Calif. (JTA) – Plucking a violin on an empty stage, an animated scene of Manhattan skyscrapers scrolling behind her pregnant body, the musician, poet and Torah scholar Alicia Jo Rabins begins to sing what sounds like a mystical incantation of sorts.
“Bring me your empty jar, I will fill it,” she intones. “Where it comes from, I can’t tell you, no one knows.”
Inspired by the biblical story of the prophet Elisha, Rabins, 37, is musing in the broadest possible terms about the crimes of Bernard Madoff, whose decades-long Ponzi scheme and the resulting fallout — particularly in the Jewish community — led to the creation of her first experimental rock opera, “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff.”
Rabins’ one-woman show, which had its California premiere last month at the Berkeley Jewish Music Festival and will be released next week as a digital download, parses the unholy ground of Madoff’s crimes through the eyes of seven disparate characters with both direct and indirect ties to the $50 billion scam.
Over the course of two years Rabins – who with a workspace grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council was working out of an abandoned Wall Street office when news of the scandal broke – conducted interviews with a wide-ranging cast of characters, from a Jewish-Buddhist monk who offered philosophical reflections to a Wall Street risk analyst who saw the writing on the wall.
“I wanted to have a Jewish response to Bernie Madoff,” Rabins said over coffee in Portland, Ore., where she moved last year from Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and 2-year-old daughter, Sylvia. “I grew interested in the ancient rituals of excommunication, and so I wanted to consider whether a modern, secular excommunication might be warranted. I mean, if not Madoff, then who?”
A classically trained violinist who spent eight years touring with the Brooklyn-based klezmer punk band Golem, Rabins was able to explore that question in depth while developing her Madoff rock opera with a grant from the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists. More recently, she was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Covenant Foundation to fund the creation of an arts-based educational curriculum focusing on women in Torah.
The Covenant Foundation grant – one of the most prestigious in the field of Jewish education – came as a direct outgrowth of Rabins’ work with Girls in Trouble, the biblically inspired art-rock song cycle that first put her on the Jewish cultural map. With two CDs under her belt, Rabins is preparing to record a third album in Portland this summer with the help of yet another recent grant — this one from Portland’s Regional Arts & Culture Council.
Drawing its inspiration from stories of biblical women — including Tamar, Miriam and Hannah — Girls in Trouble began as Rabins’ master’s thesis at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. After two years of Torah study in Jerusalem (and a regular Tuesday night gig at a bar near Ben Yehuda Street), Rabins eventually returned to New York City to complete her graduate degree in Jewish women’s studies.
Knowing her musical repertoire, which had expanded to include bluegrass music during her undergraduate years at Barnard College, Rabins’ thesis adviser suggested that she turn her research on women and music in midrash, or Torah commentary, into songs.
“What I was really interested in was the internal, emotional experience of the women in the stories,” Rabins said of her inaugural work with Girls in Trouble. “In the darkest times, there was a power that came through, and I wanted to focus on that.”
Rabins’ symphonic take on the complicated lives of biblical women struck a chord, and it wasn’t long before she was recording her first album with JDub Records, the now-defunct independent Jewish music label. Bassist Aaron Hartman, who Rabins married three months before the release of her debut album, joined the band after he heard her rhapsodizing about the project at a Brooklyn bar. Since then, the pair has toured the United States and Europe together, playing everywhere from The Smell in Los Angeles to the Great Synagogue in Stockholm.
“Alicia is able to combine a deep rigor and familiarity with Jewish text with a cutting-edge artistic sensibility,” said Daniel Schifrin, the former director of public programs for San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, who commissioned Rabins to compose a piece on the biblical handmaid Hagar. “Ancient midrash and post-punk violin should not work together, but she makes it happen.”
Perhaps what is most striking about the multitalented songstress, who grew up in Baltimore and spent her high school years sneaking out to punk shows, is her sheer range.
A critically acclaimed poet who has published work in Ploughshares and the American Poetry Review, Rabins also is a sought-after b’nai mitzvah tutor for unaffiliated Jewish families, and a U.S. cultural ambassador. In 2009, she traveled with the U.S. State Department to five countries in Central America to play fiddle music and teach American folk traditions. Her second mission, in 2011, took her to Kuwait.
When she’s not touring with Girls in Trouble, editing the manuscript for her first book of poems or baking ginger snaps with her daughter in north Portland, Rabins can be found writing a weekly Torah commentary for the Jewish parenting site Kveller.com.
“It sounds like I’m doing a million different things,” Rabins said. “But for me they’re all expressions of the same impulse to find meaning and beauty in the work of creation.”