Girls in Trouble


How Alicia Jo Rabins is keeping alive the fascinating and wild women of the Torah through her art-pop music.

According to Alicia Jo Rabins, her band, Girls in Trouble, may be one of the few bands to begin as an attempt to avoid writing an academic thesis. For her master’s thesis, Alicia did an enormous amount of research on women in Jewish text and fell in love with the “fascinating, messy, beautiful, gruesome stories.” But she didn’t want to turn them into a paper. So she took her advisor’s advice, who had seen her perform music, and wrote songs about the women instead. Alicia got her degree and, to her surprise, a record contract as well.

Listen to her music:

Where does the name of your band come from?

Girls in Trouble is kind of a hybrid projecta song cycle, and the band that plays those songs live. All our songs are about stories of women in Torah, the girls in trouble; “trouble” because I have this perverse obsession with the darker moments: leprosy, betrayal, seduction… bring it on.

I read that you learned traditional fiddle tunes while on a college semester abroad sailing expedition. That’s pretty wild. How did that experience come to be?

I knew I wanted to do a semester abroad, and one day I randomly met someone who had done this program called Semester at Sea, where you learn to sail aboard a schooner. It sounded like a good adventure, and my school actually gave credit for it, so I signed up. We learned celestial navigation and sail mechanics and ocean science and all this awesome stuff I didn’t even know existed. Plus, there was this kid Justin who knew how to play fiddle music, and I played classical violin and had brought my instrument, so we started to play together on deck when the sun set. That’s how I learned to fiddle; it was pretty extraordinary.

You then went to Jerusalem with a one-way ticket to learn Hebrew and Aramaic. How old were you, and why was this important to you?

I was 21 and had this tremendous spiritual hunger. It had always been there, but it was particularly acute because of two things: that semester at sea (on night watch, alone, in the middle of the ocean, things get deep) and my first exposure to traditional Jewish text study (through an Orthodox friend at school). I suddenly realized that Jewish texts were talking directly about that experience I’d had at sea, of being a tiny dot in the middle of a huge ocean, alive but fragile. They were a meeting point of the infinite and the particular; they transcended time and allowed you to deal directly with what it means to be human. I knew I had to interact with those words directly, for myself, without translations.

Your bio says that you studied Hebrew for 12 hours a day. Did it feel weird to go from playing music in a crowd to holing up with books all day long?

Music, like Torah, is a meeting point between the infinite and the particular. I think music is holyeven just playing in a bar, which is mostly where I performed that year. So the transition was actually quite smooth. Plus, although I was totally obsessed with those books, I wouldn’t necessarily say I was “holed up” with them; yeshiva text study is active and loud; it really sounds more like a party than a library!

Is this where you started learning about women’s stories from the Bible, or did that come later?

I was definitely interested in the intersection of feminism and Jewish texts/spirituality from the beginning, but I really started focusing on women’s stories later, when I was studying for a master’s in Jewish women’s studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Besides being a musician, I’m a Jewish educator, and I wanted to make sure I had a deep understanding of the women’s stories, especially for teaching my bat mitzvah students.

What is your favorite Old Testament story, the one with the most intrigue?

The story of Tamar. She disguises herself as a prostitute, seduces her double-ex-father-in-law, gets pregnant, and when he shames her publicly for prostitution (having no idea he was her client), she reveals to everyone that he’s the father. And he immediately relents and apologizes! It’s one of the most amazing stories ever. I don’t even understand how anyone can see the Bible as a fundamentalist document. It’s full of gray areas, just like life.

Do you ever get people criticizing you for imagining these women’s lives, or are most people just excited you’re bringing them back to life?

Maybe behind my back, but not to my face. I presented at a rabbinical school and, afterwards, someone came up and strongly disagreed with my interpretation of one of the stories, but that’s Torah study. So far I’ve been performing in front of pretty progressive crowds, though. I’m really curious about how the fundamentalist (Jewish or Christian) community would view this project; I could see it going either way.

What one woman from the Bible do you wish more Jewish women knew about?

After the whole dancing-at-the-sea episode, which we love to celebrate, Miriam’s story takes a darker turn: God strikes her with leprosy for no good reason and exiles her for a week. Of course it’s important to teach the beautiful moments of Torah, but I think there is perhaps even more spiritual sustenance to be found in the difficult parts of Torah. Life is messy and imperfect, and I love that these stories aren’t afraid to reflect that.

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