Just a few years ago, Alicia Jo Rabins didn’t know much about the workings of Wall Street; she hadn’t yet heard of Bernard Madoff. But when the story of the largest Ponzi scheme in history unfolded, the musician, poet, Jewish educator — and admittedly broke artist — was captivated by the details of Madoff’s fraud.
As an artist, she was particularly curious about how he had created something out of nothing — as artists do — and moreover, about the fact that his scheme wasn’t some sort of intricate high-level accounting but rather pure and simple fabrication. She was struck by the combination of his audacity, given his high position, and that the numbers just didn’t add up — and by the fact that the scheme was allowed to go on for so long by the regulatory agencies and the very smart people around him.
“On the heels of that curiosity,” she explains, were questions of how to deal with him as a fellow Jew. “I know I’m not literally implicated,” says Rabins, who was named to The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” earlier this year. But she was intrigued to look at him “through the eyes of fellow community members, in the broadest sense.”
Immediately, Rabins felt that Madoff was the kind of figure that operas are written about. And now, almost four years after his arrest, she has written and composed a one-woman show, “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff,” premiering at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan on Nov. 8 with a second performance on Nov. 15.
While the 65-minute piece started as a rock opera, it evolved into what she calls a “performative song cycle,” incorporating elements of musical theater, opera, abstract new music and rock; she acknowledges that it doesn’t easily fit a genre.
Rabins, 35, the songwriter and bandleader of Girls in Trouble who has performed internationally with the group and released two albums, was formerly violinist for the klezmer-punk group “Golem.” At Joe’s Pub, she will be accompanied by a three-person band, as she plays violin and sings original compositions based on people she interviewed, all one degree from Madoff and from her. In more subtle ways than actress Anna Deveare Smith, she takes on the voices of her characters.
Woven around her songs are the narrations of the Madoff story, or rather, “the story of my obsession,” and of events from her own life. While she raises questions about wealth and its meaning, she also looks at the spiritual side of events and the interconnectednes.
“I respond to the kabbalistic idea that there’s a spark of holiness in every single thing; sometimes it’s extremely far from the surface,” she says, adding that she’s often most interested in the places where holiness is most hidden.
Her music has many layers, with her use of looping pedals and processors along with live instruments. And so too are her takes on Madoff and the emotional range of the piece multilayered.
In the title song, the Kaddish prayer might be a way to uplift the soul of the deceased, or it might be a kind of excommunication, given his horrific actions, or a number of other meanings. Rabins’ soulful, haunting and beautiful recitation, with its ancient rhythms set anew, echoes with loss.
The question of whether or not she feels sympathy for Madoff is a central part of the piece. “It’s inappropriate for me to absolve him, but at the same time I do see him as a symbol of something wrong with the larger culture.”
In her research, she read extensively about Madoff, Jews and capitalism, other schemes in financial history and Jewish financial ethics. She also studied Jewish mystical and Talmudic texts as well as Buddhist texts.
“Judaism is one aspect of it,” Rabins says. “I wouldn’t say that defines it. I want it to be a human piece that considers Bernie Madoff at this moment in time, through a Jewish lens, a Buddhist lens, the lens of a working artist in New York.”
Among those she interviewed (and whose roles she plays) were a victim, a lawyer for the victims, an FBI agent working on the case, an analyst who refused to invest with Madoff and a Buddhist monk who had no connection to the story.
She takes on the voice of a therapist whose parents lived the Jewish immigrant success story, invested with Madoff and lost everything: “We sold the house in Long Island/and we drove my mother down/to a nursing home in Jersey/we didn’t say where she was going/but I think she might have known/she held the keys to her house in her hand the whole way down.”
Rabins didn’t reach out to Madoff’s family, nor has she contacted Madoff, although she says she would be curious to meet him. When asked if he knows of her efforts, she doubts he has any idea, “unless he has a Google alert for his name.”
A classically trained violinist, Rabins has been studying the violin since she was 3. She describes her voice as natural and intimate. The recipient of a Six Points Fellowship given to emerging artists, and other grants, she mentions performance artist Laurie Anderson as an influence, with her experimental music mixed with multi-media storytelling
About performing, she says, “I generally feel very aware of the present moment. I love what it does to time. I generally feel very raw. I’m really me.”
Rabins grew up in a Jewish home in Baltimore, but it was only when she went off to college at Barnard, and later at Pardes in Israel and at The Jewish Theological Seminary, that she developed a love of Jewish learning and grappled with Hebrew and Aramaic texts. Her band, Girls in Trouble, grew out of her study of midrash at JTS — she began retelling the stories of little-known women in Jewish texts through her music, fusing Indie rock and Torah study. She now also does bar and bat mitzvah tutoring and adult Jewish education, in person and over Skype.
We meet in Bushwick, at a combination café and yoga studio, not far from her home. These days, even Bushwick has Chabad, and sometimes Rabins goes to its shul on Flushing Avenue here for services. When she’s not touring, she lights candles and has Shabbat dinner at home.
She has a 6-month-old daughter, Sylvia Tallulah, and says that since becoming a mother she appreciates playing music more. “I appreciate pure things more, her smiling, playing music, temporary transcendent things.”
Rabins is appearing at Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette St., on Nov. 8 and 15 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. Call (212) 967-7555 or joespub.com.