The Jewish artist Alicia Jo Rabins transforms the monetary disaster right into a non secular movie
(RNS) – In 2008 Jewish singer-songwriter Alicia Jo Rabins had a front row seat in the financial crisis.
Rabins, who released three albums with the stories of women in the Torah as part of her Girls in Trouble project, had a day job teaching bat mitzvah students to sing from the Torah. She was also artist-in-residence in an abandoned office building on Wall Street.
From her studio on the ninth floor, she felt drawn into the stories of Bernie Madoff’s arrest for his role on the biggest Ponzi program in history and the spiritual issues that came with it.
She wrestled with the fact that both Madoff and many of his victims were Jews. She heard rumors that a Palm Beach synagogue, which included many of the victims among its members, had recited the funeral kaddish for Madoff and effectively excommunicated him. She interviewed people associated with Madoff, turned their stories into songs, searched for spiritual texts, and created rituals to help understand everything.
The result is “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff,” a one-woman show that has been described as a “mystical metamusical about the greatest financial fraud in history.”
“I often say I see Madoff as a cipher at the center of the work of art,” Rabins told the Religion News Service. “It’s really about all of us and our society and how we heal and evolve when this happens.”
Alicia J. Rose’s “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff” premiered last week and can be viewed online during the Portland International Film Festival until Sunday March 14th.
Rabins spoke to RNS about their quest to make beauty out of brokenness and what lessons audiences could learn from the financial crisis and Madoff’s story for this current moment of crisis, a year after a pandemic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get from writing songs about the women of the Torah to Bernie Madoff and his victims?
It’s one of those things that looks so different on the outside, but in some ways there are a lot of similarities between the projects. Ultimately, on a conceptual level, I’m really interested in how ancient traditions intersect with contemporary life in a way that is truly alive and authentic and inherent. How can they help us process the difficulties in our own lives and contextualize our challenges as essential human challenges?
I definitely feel, and I think others feel too, “Oh, something is wrong with me. I have this problem. “And I find it really comforting how looking at ancient texts and stories can reflect our challenges as part of the human journey.
“Girls in Trouble” is more about personal stories about family, beliefs, power and gender. With these songs, I have always sought how to relate to them in a personal way in my own life or in the lives of those around me.
In a way, it’s similar (with “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff”). When I had this residence and in some way witnessed the financial collapse and then the news from Madoff, I was very ashamed that this person of my tribe did this terrible thing. I had the same impulse to look for ways to contextualize it and find a way that is not just a crude, modern story of everything that is terrible, and instead look at it from a really long view of what it is does about showing human nature and how we can overlook the rationality to buy into a dream of a better world?
What pulled you into Madoff’s story and the stories of his victims?
There are a couple of things that really got me and made me feel like this is like Greek material on a tragedy level.
One of them was the fact that Madoff never made a single trade. Throughout these decades people have been saying, “Well, he’s got mathematically impossible returns, but he must have cracked the code and somehow found a magical algorithm that would allow him to beat the market.” For me it is a messianic impulse – that we can overcome the ups and downs of life on earth. There’s a way, and this guy did it. That really spoke to me on a much deeper level.
The other thing that really attracted me was to learn that his returns weren’t that high, they were just super consistent because I think there was a guess that it was just out of greed that people had invested in him. I was really blown away that it only offered the market average. It just didn’t go up and down like the market. What it promised was just persistence, and I found it kind of poetic, fascinating, and also very compassionate. It was a fact that helped me have so much compassion for the victims.
You talk in the film about digging into ancient texts to understand all of this – Jewish traditions, Kabbalistic texts, Buddhist sutras. What did you learn from these traditions and how did spirituality help you make sense of what happened?
I think these lyrics were part of what helped me contextualize this as a perfectly normal human desire to escape the ups and downs of life.
This is what the actual Buddhist priest told me in our conversation and was also in “Blossoms”, the sutra that I set to music: Everything is the product of a number of causes and conditions. Things create other things, and everything is kind of that interconnected web. The Kabbalistic texts reflected the same idea that for me really led to a lot of talk, among other things, about how everything affects everything else in this global financial collapse. This Wall Street collapse, the subprime mortgage fiasco, will hit people all over the world unrelated to the financial world. It felt to me like some kind of real manifestation of this mystical or spiritual principle of connectedness.
The other side would be in a mystical Jewish framework like balancing compassion and judgment. I see that compassion is one kind of that networking. Part of it for me was asking why he was like this, and how can I say that if I had had exactly the same experience, I wouldn’t have done the same? And then the other is the need for judgment and boundaries. This is where the Jewish tradition of excommunication and also the biblical curses come into play.
On the one hand, we are all connected and it is all one. On the other hand, there comes a moment when you need to be able to draw the line and say, “No, this is wrong and you are now out of the community.” Even if we view excommunication as a very island-like, ultra-orthodox thing, perhaps there could be a progressive, timely excommunication that could help us say, “Well, no, we have limits to what is allowed in our community, and these Person doesn’t represent us at all because we’ve drawn the line. “
Talk to us about the ritual you created. What is the symbolism in the kaddish that ends the film?
When we met and thought about what we were doing for this ritual, we wanted to call everyone back because we wanted them to be part of it. And then we wanted to bring in Jewish mourning traditions too, because the idea of saying a kaddish for someone who is alive is that you say, “You are dead to us.” If you saw this person on the street, you would literally look through them.
We staged it as an art ritual, so to speak, but we wanted to bring in a lot of traditions. So we had candles that are part of the mourning ritual and we had a little basket with ribbons that is often with funerals as a symbol of the practice of tearing your clothes and then reciting the kaddish that I did with the traditional words , but in a kind of original composition. It’s new music with the traditional words.
And then basically I did some research and found out what the excommunication ceremony was like, which I didn’t know because we don’t. We tried to have every element in some way – part of it was for the rabbi to blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, and in my eyes it was a kind of musical scream to hold my violin and play my violin to the vocation to symbolize further both the element of grief and the call to action.
You mentioned in the introduction to the film at the festival that it was an interesting moment to release this film. What do you hope people will take away from it?
I mean, I really hope my silly dancing will make people laugh.
My dream would be that this would feel cathartic, that it would help people feel a little better about what we have all been through and what we are all going through. I always try to balance this very long view that I find so helpful in terms of contextualization, and if we can reflect on what we are going through as an individual or as a society, as some sort of integral part of the human experience, I think it means it. And I think that heals. And if I can do that with a bit of humor and silly dancing and it puts a smile on people’s faces as it happens, that’s my dream.
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