Feminist Mystique

Six questions for poet-performer Alica Jo Rabins.
A photo of Girls in Trouble founder, Alicia Jo Rabins.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a Brooklyn-based poet, biblical scholar and performer. She founded the band, Girls in Trouble, after spending time in Israel studying women in the Bible. She brings these women’s stories to life in her poetic lyrics, which cover obscure Biblical women like Jephthah’s daughter, as well as famous ones like Deborah, Ruth and Naomi. In her song, “Marble Floor,” she describes Chana, a woman who has exerted influence in the way we pray today:
“I opened my mouth but no words came
I lay down to sleep but I did not dream
I looked up at the stars but the sky was dark
like a mirror held up to my heart”

Rabins was interviewed by e-mail.

Do you see Girls in Trouble as part of the feminist movement? Are you yourself a feminist?
I do consider myself a feminist and I guess although I would characterize Girls in Trouble primarily as an art project/song cycle, I would call it feminist art — although we usually think of that more in terms of visual art, for some reason.

I understand that your music was influenced by the time you spent in Israel. Could you tell me some more about that?
I grew up in a secular Jewish home, but got really interested in the texts and the spiritual content of Judaism in college. So after I graduated [Barnard College], I got a scholarship to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. I sort of jumped in full force and ended up staying for two years and getting super-deep into Talmud and chasidic thought. It really changed my life. So these songs are definitely influenced by that time — by having had the tremendous blessing to spend two years fully immersed in these texts and traditions.

I’m borderline-obsessed with Lilith, the real first woman whose story is told through midrashim (rabbinic interpretations). I totally love that she influenced the album so much. Why did you choose her as your muse?
I too find Lilith incredibly fascinating, but I should say that although her song ended up being the album single, she’s not necessarily my muse any more than the other women I write about. I feel connected to each of them and after 20 songs they begin to form a system in which they are all parts of each other or perhaps all refractions of some sort of divine woman, like that Tree of Life map of God which contains sefirot [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sephirot]. But it’s true that Lilith is sort of fundamental: after all, she’s the first woman, or maybe predates Judaism altogether as a legend, and since she’s not actually mentioned in the Torah there are such wildly varied legends about her. I was interested in the idea of medieval Jewish women making amulets to keep Lilith away so that she wouldn’t kill their babies. It seemed so lonely to me, the thought of this woman first being banished by God because she wouldn’t submit to Adam, and then being doubly exiled by women who were afraid of her anger and power. I entered her character through this sort of awful imagined loneliness and somehow ended up on the other side of it, with the luminous power of that original love.

As I listened to “Rubies” and “Emeralds and Microscopes,” I was strongly reminded of my own grandmother and great-grandmother. Did you draw inspiration from any women in your own life?
Sure, and the men too! I am the oldest of three sisters and both my mother and father were sort of natural feminists — I don’t think they necessarily used the word feminism, but they have always encouraged all three of us to assume we could do anything boys could do. So I grew up with a lot of girl power around. My mom is an amazing woman and my grandmother Sylvia was also a pretty tough lady who was a nurse in World War II and was a super capable, creative, strong lady who liked to make up songs and taught us how to iron clothes by sitting on them. And I’ve had amazing women teachers … and of course, my powerful women friends, whom I am so blessed to know and who are too many to name. … I think it is also important to credit the supportive men in my life like my dad, and many of my teachers, and now my husband, who encouraged me as I was growing up (and still encourages me today) to respect my own strength, intelligence and power!

Did you expect to have a career in music or did you fall into all of this?
I grew up playing the violin and writing music, but what I expected to do was to be a poet (which I still am, as well). Music was always a huge part of my life, so I should have known it wouldn't just disappear one day — and I’m glad it didn’t — but I still do occasionally get pretty surprised at the path my life has taken.

What advice do you have for other young women who want to pursue careers in the musical industry?
Trust your instincts, work hard, and have fun. A lot of people will tell you “how things work,” but they’re usually wrong — there are no hard and fast rules in this business. Be as creative about your career as you are about your work. For me that means a lot of DIY thinking which is really helpful in transcending barriers and just making things happen. And above all, keep taking in new work (music, literature, visual art, dance, film) and making your own work. That’s what makes us artists.

author's bio: 
Talia Weisberg is a junior at Manhattan High School for Girls.