A night at the Opera: ‘Kadish with Bernie Madoff

“Mourner’s Kaddish” is not something you’d expect to hear in the same sentence as “rock opera,” but singer-songwriter, poet and Torah scholar Alicia Jo Rabins has figured out a way to intertwine the two in “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff.”

Rabins will be performing her one-woman show on Thursday, March 27 as part of this year’s Jewish Music Festival. Her piece uses the Madoff scandal to explore the intersection of spirituality, finance and responsibility.

Two nights later, Rabins will be back onstage with the indie rock band she leads, Girls in Trouble, which also features her husband, Aaron Hartman, on bass. Both performances will take place at the JCC of the East Bay in Berkeley.

Raised in suburban Baltimore, the 37-year-old Portlander got the idea for what she calls an “experimental rock opera” when she and more than a dozen other artists were sharing a Lower Manhattan workspace in an old building.
“I’d lived in Brooklyn for a decade, but had spent almost no time in the financial district,” she says. “Suddenly I found myself commuting to Wall Street to write songs in this empty office.”

Sitting in the wake of the Wall Street crisis of 2007-08, Rabins says she began to think of the 2008 Madoff scandal as a modern Greek tragedy. So she decided to combine her musical background with her deep interest in Jewish texts and traditions.

Musically, Rabins is a songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist. She is a classically trained violinist, having played the instrument since the age of 3, but as a teenager, she began sneaking out of her house to attend Baltimore punk shows. In Girls in Trouble, she fiddles, plays the guitar and sings.

Religiously, though she was raised secular, Rabins tapped into an undiscovered love of Jewish texts when she attended a Torah study session in college. She went on to study for two years at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, an independent coed yeshiva in Jerusalem, and then got her master’s in women’s studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.

To get material for her project, she began interviewing people involved in the Madoff scandal: victims, co-workers, people familiar with the Wall Street world. All of them helped give her a better idea of what Madoff was like.

She also buried herself in Securities and Exchange Commission reports. “I was blown away by the fact that his [investment] returns were mathematically impossible, yet no one stopped him for 40 years,” she says.

But, she is quick to point out, her rock opera “is not just about Madoff.” Instead, she says, it is about “the American relationship to money, survival and finance” and how that relates to “the idea of being responsible for one another.”

Rabins says while putting this piece together, she had a hard time dealing with the fact that Madoff is a Jew — because, she explains, “he fit into some of the worst Jewish stereotypes, and his actions reflected horribly on the community as a whole.”

Rabins’ piece, which will be making its California premiere, is a song cycle that includes setting the Mourner’s Kaddish to music. There is also storytelling, instrumentals and projected animation. All of it — the words and images — help examine whether Madoff should be dead to the Jewish community.

“I wanted to ask the question: Should Madoff, a modern, mostly secular Jew, warrant a modern, secular excommunication? Should we say the Kaddish for him?”

Rabins stresses that the rock opera does not answer that question explicitly. Instead, she says, it meditates on the idea of “Where do we draw the line?”

“I think of ‘A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff’ as an exploration of two alternate ways of dealing,” she says. “If this doesn’t warrant excommunication, what does?”

“A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff,” 8 p.m. March 27. Girls in Trouble, 8 p.m. March 29. Both at JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. $22-$25. https://www.jewishmusicfestival.org

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