That Old Time Religion: Interview with a Girl in Trouble

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Alicia Jo Rabins is the frontswoman of Girls in Trouble. Their self-titled album was just released on JDub Records, and it’s more than just a ten-song collection — it’s a cycle of songs, each narrated by a specific woman from the Bible,

girls in trouble, alicia jo rabins
Rabins isn’t just a musician following a lark — she has advanced degrees in both poetry and Jewish studies — and to her, the song cycle is a culmination of a lifetime of study. When I asked her whether dealing with some of the sexist-seeming stories ever made her angry, she almost took umbrage at the suggestion: these songs, you can tell, are the product of a person who’s in love with her source material. She replied: “The Torah itself I see as sacred literature, and literature isn’t supposed to be fair; good stories come out of the terrible things people do to each other.”

The interpretations of the sacred literature, on the other hand, can go in any which way.

MJL: Why the Bible? You write good music, and your lyrics are smart and funny and inspired. Why not just write songs with your own voice?

Alicia Jo Rabins: Well, thank you, sir.

First of all, I couldn’t have come up with narrative material this twisted on my own. So I had to get it somewhere. But I do see Girls in Trouble as my voice: it’s just funneled through a particular project, a song cycle. The song cycle has a unifying theme — each song interprets a Biblical woman’s story — but still involves a lot of choices: which stories to write about, and then how to interpret them lyrically and musically. So the project gives me a structure, a form through which to direct my voice, which is really fun as an artist. I like to triangulate: there is my experience, and then the source material, and then the aesthetic artifact.

Of course, I think all art is part of a system that is greater than any one artist. I do find myself particularly interested in art that explicitly re-interprets earlier stories: for example, James Joyce’s Ulysses, a modernist retelling of the Odyssey, or Louise Gluck’s poems in the voices of Greek gods, or midrash which comments on Torah stories, or Leonard Cohen singing about Joan of Arc.

alicia jo rabins, girls in troubleI like the way it collapses time and enables us to knit together the present and history, and see what might remain constant about human experience. Of course, there’s definitely a feminist aspect of bringing the women’s stories out as well.

From the design of your physical album, and the titles of the songs, it’s virtually impossible to tell that their protagonists are thousand-year-old Hebrew speakers. Did you make a conscious decision not to identify your protagonists, or the sources — either as a guessing game, or as a way of making the songs universal?

The girls’ angel wings on Arrington de Dionyso‘s beautiful cover art are a nod to the spiritual provenance of the songs, but it’s funny, I never considered making the source material explicit in the design or titles. From the beginning, I wanted Girls in Trouble to be able to live in both worlds. I experience these stories as pretty direct, universal human narrative, and I didn’t want the associations people have with the word “Bible” or “Torah” to get in the way of people hearing the songs firsthand, without an intellectual or religious slant. I don’t mean to hide the sources from people, though — I did write a key to the songs, and I think JDub posted it.
I guess the design and titles are also a reflection of my general take on spiritual texts. I’ve been studying and teaching Torah for a while now — my students’ questions and observations have provoked a lot of the ideas in these songs — and my entry into it is very practical and real-world.

I respect how old these stories are, but for me the real question is, how does a spiritual text — whether Jewish or Buddhist, narative or mystical or halachic — relate to our lives and our real-life problems, our loneliness, our need for beauty? I wrote these songs to be music of and for this moment, and I wanted the design to reflect that.

You were recently married to your bassist, Aaron Hartman. How did that affect you, writing about all these women, several of whom were in unhappy or sketchy relationships?

Let me put it this way: while we recorded the album, we all lived at engineer Scott Solter‘s house in rural North Carolina. I was in the studio pretty much the whole time and whenever Aaron wasn’t laying down bass tracks he was cooking delicious Japanese curry or making fresh pasta sauce — he kept the whole band fed, which made the music possible. (And Tim Monaghan, the drummer, happens to be a gifted mixologist, and kept us drinking gourmet hot toddies night after night.) That’s something the men in these stories probably would not have done, so it was easy to keep them separate in my mind.

Plus, in defense of Biblical men, in a bunch of the stories (Tamar, Chana, Judith) the men actually come around at the end — whether it’s through realizing their mistake and humbly apologizing, or getting their head cut off.

In “Snow,” you-as-Miriam sings, “And if your God should turn from you/Wouldn’t you turn, too?” Did writing these songs get you closer to the Torah, or more angry at it? Why do you think Miriam rejoined the camp after her bout with tzaraat?

I don’t think I’m angry at Torah. What I’m angry about are some of the Jewish laws that I see as sexist — for example, that women can’t be counted as witnesses or for a minyan, or the issue of agunot. That’s rabbinic Judaism, though. It comes later, and it’s always being rewritten, so the burden lies not on past rabbis but on this generation’s rabbis to right those wrongs. The Torah itself I see as sacred literature, and literature isn’t supposed to be fair; good stories come out of the terrible things people do to each other.

The Torah definitely focuses on men’s stories, and generally uses the masculine pronoun to refer to God, so it is fundamentally skewed towards men’s experience, and that’s crucial to notice — but otherwise I actually didn’t find the Torah stories to be particularly misogynistic. Both men and women get betrayed, tricked, abandoned, murdered. I was kind of horrified by a few of the stories I found, of course, bat Yiftach being the most obvious example, but most of them I was actually impressed by; there are a considerable number of women who are ignored or mistreated but who find ways to get what they need, and the Torah doesn’t seem to judge them for this, in fact they sometimes even get an apology from the man who mistreated them (Tamar, Chana).

As for Miriam’s story, I once slept alone in the desert in Israel for a night. I hitchhiked to a national park with my sleeping bag and some water, and didn’t leave ’til the morning. It was so pure, silent and terrible and amazing. While I was writing “Snow,” I kept thinking, how would that kind of sacred loneliness feel if it were forced on you for a week? Finally I thought, maybe it was a biblical meditation retreat for Miriam. What if she sat in silence for a week, watched the cycles of nature, decided she wasn’t interested in God anymore, and basically became a proto-Buddhist. Once that happens, why not go back and live with your friends and family?

I want to point out that though Miriam’s punishment seems harsh, so is Moses’ — he dies before crossing into the Promised Land, after forty years of leading these difficult, rebellious people through the desert to get there, and just because he hit a rock? Torah stories are deep and bloody and powerful and often disturbing, whether they’re about men or women. I do see Girls in Trouble as a feminist project, because women’s stories are less present in Torah and I think it’s important to bring them out; but it is also a project about encouraging a complex, nuanced view of spiritual texts. Miriam’s song at the sea is famous, because it’s easy to celebrate, and that’s great, but especially for adults I think it’s ultimately so much more satisfying to read all the way to the end of her life and see the exile and sadness alongside the joy and relief. That range of experience doesn’t just happen to women in Torah – it happens to everyone. Just like in real life.

Posted on February 18, 2010

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