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Girls in Trouble: The Complicated Lives of Biblical Women

Alicia Jo RabinsFilmed at Limmud Conference 2011

If you are interested in (for lack of a better term) “spiritual journeys” and their surprising twists; stories of women in Torah; violins; vulnerability; exploration; feminism; art as spiritual practice; spiritual practice as art; travel; poetry; or open-hearted exploration, you might be interested to listen to me.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a poet, performer, musician and Torah teacher. She tours internationally with Girls in Trouble, her indie-folk song cycle about the complicated lives of women in Jewish texts, and her poetry book, Divinity School, won the prestigious APR/Honickman First Book Prize in 2015. Alicia holds an MA in Jewish Women’s Studies (JTS) and an MFA in Poetry (Warren Wilson) and lives in Portland, Oregon.

How does a secular Jewish girl from Baltimore Maryland end up travelling around the world performing indie rock songs about women in Torah and why? Here’s my attempt to answer that question in 10 minutes.

When I was three months old, my parents, both secular American Jews moved to Baltimore for my father’s job. They chose not to settle in the Jewish suburb of Baltimore, so I grew up in a Christian neighbourhood and was one of only a handful of Jews in my school. All my friends attended Towson Presbyterian Church Youth Group and I begged my parents to let me go, promising that it really wasn’t religious at all, we just hung out (which was basically true). They eventually allowed me to join the youth group, although they drew the line at letting me wear a large silver cross around my neck, despite my defence in which I brilliantly cited Madonna to prove that it was simply a fashion choice. I attended Hebrew school once a week across town, in the Jewish neighbourhood, in a huge American Reform Synagogue or ‘temple’, as we called it. As was typical I emerged from 7 years of weekly religious instruction with a working knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet, one or two short prayers, and the tantalizing sense that there was something worthwhile just beyond my reach and no way to get there.

Meanwhile, by the time I reached high school, I found myself sort of making up my own alternative religious rituals, involving crystals, seawater, sage, illicit substances and whatever other spiritual- seeming things I could get my hands on. I wasn’t conscious of anything missing in my education because what my religious education lacked my artistic education more than made up for. This was my connection, if not to the divine then to the sublime. (And in a parallel universe right now, I am giving a much more prescriptive talk on the importance of arts education for every child.)

At 17 I went to university to study poetry and music and my wonderful parents, fortunately for me, both expected and encouraged this uncertain path. What they neither expected nor particularly encouraged was my stumbling upon a Torah study session and falling in love, not with a person but with the Torah.

My study partner, Shira, was a girl my age who had been raised strictly Orthodox but had become too religious even for her Orthodox parents, who had forced her to transfer to a secular college to ‘chill her out’. Shira was in this secular world for the first time and she was in total shock. I was encountering rabbinic texts (in translation) for the first time, and I was also in shock. We were like two children. I would ask her a question like: “So ….Judaism believes that people have souls, right? But do animals have souls?” and she would answer me, and then she would ask, “So…if you’re not religious and you go on a date, do you just like have sex right away?”
This taste of Jewish texts led me after graduation directly to Jerusalem to begin my deep Jewish education, at an incredible school called Pardes. Once at Pardes I found an interesting conundrum. These texts which I so enjoyed studying had a whole series of rules which I discovered I had been breaking my entire life. The more I learned, the more I realized I was constantly transgressing. On the other hand, my parents whom I loved and respected, and had no desire to break away from, got more alarmed the more observant I became. It was sort of an ideal situation for me, because either way I would be breaking someone’s rules. Either I became a religious freak by my parents’ definition, or I became a bad Jew by these new beloved texts’ definition. What this meant to me was that I had no choice but to choose for myself: What really works? What truly makes sense in my life? And what holds meaning that I can’t find elsewhere?

Probably because of this background, what I am most interested in is an intimate, personal relationship with the rituals, and especially the stories, of Torah. When I began studying Torah I assumed that, as an ancient holy text, it would portray an ideal world. I was shocked and delighted upon finding, just a couple pages into Genesis, that the Torah is full of characters who are messy, embodied, imperfect and sometimes highly emotional, like us. They have dysfunctional relationships, fertility issues and disgusting skin problems. There are brothers and sisters who drive each other crazy, parents at a loss for how to deal with their kids, husbands and wives who can’t communicate; dissatisfaction, lust, grief, injustice, loneliness. I love that the world of Torah is as deeply flawed as our own. I love the vulnerability and the strength of these characters, especially the women’s characters, whose stories are often written on, or with, their bodies. I began to write songs about my favourite stories of women in Torah and I called these songs “Girls in Trouble.” Tamar, trapped in childless widowhood by her powerful ex-father–in–law, veils herself and seduces him. Judith saves her city by dressing up fancy and by her strategic use of salty cheese, wine and a sword. Chana invents a new form of ecstatic prayer, is accused of drunkenness and thrown out of the temple because she is so fully transported and ends up being the model for one of the most important Jewish prayers.
They certainly don’t all have happy endings, that is not my point. But however their stories end, I find companionship in the complexity and rawness of these ancient women’s tales. Sometimes I think I write these songs to ease my own loneliness; and sometimes I think I study Torah for the same reason. We are each alone, but there is something fundamentally common in our aloneness. We all have secrets and stories we don’t yet know how to tell, and sometimes going deep into the knotted complexities of other narratives can help us decipher our own.

After three years of writing and performing these songs, I have begun to think of these Biblical women as my friends. I don’t know if there are any Sex and the City fans out there but – l’havdil – there is a theory that holds that the four main female characters are actually all parts of one woman, separated out to her extremes. And sometimes I feel like this about the women of Torah, that together they make up a kind of constellation, each one a point of light illuminating one aspect of one great female character, beyond time or space. Perhaps this is shechina the divine, the female divine and perhaps our stories are a part of her as well.

To conclude this session, I offer you one song about Hagar. I chose to write about perhaps the worst moment in her life, when Sarah has cast her into the desert with her son Ishamael, they’re running out of water, and Hagar can’t bear to watch Ishmael die, so she sends him to sit under a tree one arrows –length away. The story itself has a happy ending – an angel comes soon after to tell Hagar everything will be fine, and it is – but I was captivated by this moment of despair, and by the very human, very contemporary question of whether we have the strength it takes to be present with someone we love while they are suffering.

This song is called ‘The Arrow and the Bow’:
“The arrow leaves the bow and goes off on its own. And when the arrow’s gone, the bow remains alone. My little grain of rice, my little blueberry. My skin, my hair, my arms, how you grew in me. My Father said to me, as I was leaving home, a princess never cries, even when she’s alone. So I’ll be over here, and you stay over there, as long as we both breathe, this unforgiving air.”

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