Alicia Jo Rabins, 34
Twitter: @ohaliciajo, @girlsintrouble
Growing up, Alicia Jo Rabins never gave much thought to Jewish tradition. She was raised secular, in a mostly non-Jewish section of Baltimore.
“It was not a huge part of my life,” she said of Judaism in her youth. Her passion was for poetry, and as a teenager she began attracting attention for her writing — a Presidential Scholar of the Arts Award (including a White House ceremony), and a prize given by renowned poet Mary Oliver, at age 19. But when Rabins went off to Barnard, she approached a group of Orthodox Jewish students who were leading Torah study sessions on campus. Soon, she was hooked: “I realized I had been trying to reinvent the wheel,” she said, referring to her personal quest to answer big, philosophical questions — how to be a good friend, how to be a good daughter, what it even meant to be “good.” Studying Jewish texts, it dawned on her that “I really had the benefit of thousands of years of distilled Jewish wisdom.”
After college, she spent two years studying at an independent co-ed yeshiva in Israel, and then moved to New York. She enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s women’s studies program in 2004, for her master’s degree, and decided to meld her music — she’s been playing violin since her youth — with her poetry and interest in Torah. For her master’s thesis, she proposed a song-cycle set to lyrics that about women in the Bible. She had been playing violin with an indie Jewish band called Golem, and after meeting the founder of JDub Records, she got a contract. Thus, in 2007, Rabins’ group, Girls in Trouble, which plays art-rock songs based on women in the Bible, was born, and it has caught the attention of publications from The New Yorker to The New York Times.
Rabins plans to finish the last of three Girls in Trouble albums soon. Meanwhile, she’s working on an arty musical called “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff,” with help from a prestigious Six Points Fellowship, which funds the work of contemporary Jewish artists.
Two things few people know about Rabins: She loves sailing and used to volunteer on a boat crew at the South Street Seaport, and she never watched TV growing up, but now she’s watching re-runs of 1980s sitcoms.