Her Many Muses

Alicia Jo Rabins ’98 mines her obsessions for her art

By Debra Spark

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Not long after the Bernie Madoff scandal broke, Alicia Jo Rabins ’98 started a yearlong artist residency on an empty floor of a Wall Street high-rise. At first, Rabins — a poet, musician, and Jewish educator — wasn’t sure what she’d produce. This was a time to be creative, but her mind kept turning to the disgraced financier who defrauded thousands of people. Here she was in the heart of the financial district — in his environs. How to understand the man who once operated the largest Ponzi scheme in history? And what about the individuals and families he impacted? Why was she even so curious?

When Rabins is interested in something, she has a tendency to dive in deep. In 1994, she arrived at Barnard, an accomplished violinist who wanted to be a poet. She left as a Phi Beta Kappa whose friendship (and subsequent study) with a Modern Orthodox classmate spurred a desire to immerse herself in Judaism. Previously a more-or-less-secular Jew, she moved to Jerusalem for a year of study but wanted more, so she stayed for a second year, then returned to New York and eventually earned a master’s in Jewish women’s studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

In 2008, she was still in the habit of immersing herself in all-consuming subjects, only now that was Madoff. In the end, she says of her obsession, “I did what any artist does when something drives them crazy — I made it into art.”

And that’s how Rabins’ film, A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, came to be. Part memoir and part MTV-style music video, the film colorfully weaves together live performance and animation. Rabins takes on the personalities of a credit risk officer, an FBI agent, a victim, and other individuals who were wrapped up in the scandal. She narrates their experiences in song but also performs as herself, unpacking her thoughts about morality, shame, and the collective culpability Jews may feel when another Jew sins. The mourner’s kaddish is the prayer that Jews recite in memory of the dead. (Bernie Madoff died in a North Carolina prison in April 2021.)

Artistically, Rabins has been here before, considering how people are linked to one another. Her Jewish Theological Seminary thesis was Girls in Trouble, a song cycle about Biblical women that eventually evolved into several albums, a touring show, and a series of educational study guides that connect Biblical stories to contemporary emotional experiences. “When I look back at these myths and stories about people who are dealing with resonant archetypal issues, I can feel my whole body relax, as I think, ‘Oh, this is what it is to be alive. Struggling,’” she says. “It’s not that we’re supposed to have some kind of perfect transcendent life. This is the path.”

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Photo courtesy of A Kadish for Bernie Madoff
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Photo courtesy of A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff

Rabins’ career has always been accretive. As she’s picked up new interests and degrees — an MFA in poetry that led to two poetry collections in addition to her master’s — she keeps her passions going, even as she finds new ways to bring them together. And music has been a constant for Rabins. In Jerusalem, she played violin in bluegrass clubs. Back in New York, she was the fiddler for the klezmer-punk band Golem.

The Madoff piece also began as a touring stage production, which Rabins performed over the course of six years, including in Portland, Oregon, where she and her husband eventually moved (and currently live with their two children). The show was emotionally taxing to perform, and by 2017, Rabins was ready to create other projects, so she decided to hire a professional to document the performance, asking him, “Can it be like a Netflix special where there’s a little bit before and a little bit at the end that ties it to the real world? Maybe I’m backstage?”

The documentarian didn’t feel he was right for the project, but Rabins soon had someone else in mind. The year before, an email meant for Alicia J. Rose, a Portland filmmaker, accidentally landed in Alicia J. Rabins’ mailbox. Confused, Rabins asked her husband to decipher the message, and he said, “Oh, that’s Alicia J. Rose. I know her. Here’s her website.”

Rabins had looked online and been impressed by what she saw, finding Rose a “snappy visual storyteller,” so when it didn’t work out with the documentarian, Rabins called Rose for a consultation. The email mix-up suggested that they had at least one friend (beyond Rabins’ husband) in common, but Rose also happens to be Jewish and had directed music videos. She had even once booked Golem at a Portland club. Though Rabins asked Rose about documenting the theatre piece, Rose thought film would be the better option: “All these songs could be full music videos.”

And so they are. The two women made a “concept trailer,” Rabins says, “to see whether we liked working together and whether this vision made sense. And it did. And so then we started fundraising.” A different artist might have been overwhelmed by attempting a film, but Rabins says, “As an artist, I finally accepted that part of my practice is working in forms I’m kind of a beginner in.”

Which may explain why prose projects are what’s up next. In addition to adapting Girls in Trouble into a full-length show, Rabins is currently writing a spiritual memoir. In the fall of 2022, when A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff becomes available for streaming, Behrman House will release Rabins’ essay collection, Even God Had Bad Parenting Days. And Rabins’ bathtub pandemic poems — written on her phone during nightly baths in 2020 and 2021 — are online, another art project born of an obsession: how to process the present moment.

Scenes from Alicia Jo Rabins’ film, “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff”

Photos courtesy of A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff

Latest IssueSpring 2022

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