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 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.
The rock opera had its California premiere last month at the Berkeley Jewish Music Festival and will be released next week as a digital download.
The production joins a growing list of works that attempt to tackle the Madoff story. Among them are Lee Blessing’s 2013 dark comedy “A User’s Guide to Hell, Featuring Bernard Madoff,” and Michael Roberts’ “Greed: A Musical For Our Times,” which is currently running Off-Broadway.
Over the course of two years, Rabins 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.
When news of the scandal broke, Rabins was working out of an abandoned Wall Street office thanks to a workspace grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
“I wanted to have a Jewish response to Bernie Madoff,” Rabins said over coffee in Portland, Ore., where she moved last year from Brooklyn 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.
Drawing its inspiration from stories of Bible 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.
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. (He writes the Culture View column for The Jewish Week.) “Ancient midrash and post-punk violin should not work together, but she makes it happen.”