That's where musician and Torah scholar Alicia Jo Rabins found her mind wandering when the Bernie Madoff scandal broke in 2008. At the time, Rabins was working in New York City near Wall Street, and each day she looked out to identical rows of tiny windows, she says, "with a person in each window doing their little Wall Street job." Though Rabins, who moved to Portland a year ago, had never been interested in finance, the turmoil of that year gripped her. "If there were ever a case for contemporary excommunication, wouldn't Bernie Madoff be it?" she asked.
From that question, Rabins created a one-woman song cycle called A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, which she'll present this weekend at Portland Playhouse. Rabins has another song cycle about the dark and sometimes sordid stories of biblical women, and here she explores the intersection of finance and spirituality to tell what she calls a "detective story" of economic collapse. In addition to setting Buddhist texts and Jewish prayers to original music—Rabins combines live violin with electronic effects such as a loop pedal—she draws on interviews with those affected by the Madoff scandal. Each of these subjects, including a lawyer for the victims and a financial analyst, becomes a character with a distinct musical approach: An FBI agent gets a bluesy song in the style of Tom Waits, while other songs hew closer to '80s rock. Portlander Zak Margolis, meanwhile, provides a backdrop of projected animations, from endless rows of office-building windows to abstract evocations of nature.
In part, the song cycle is Rabins' response to what she observed as a widespread reluctance to address Madoff's Jewish identity. "There's such a long stereotype of Jews in finance, and I felt like it was hard to think about Madoff as a Jewish person," she says. "No one wanted to talk about it, because it's so close to something that's really hateful."
So rather than link the fraudster to Shylock or Fagin, Rabins opted to examine Jewish ideas of communal responsibility, which is how she settled on the Kaddish. Yet she's not exactly arguing for outright excommunication—instead, the show aims to investigate the tension between banishing someone and recognizing your own complicity in the system. In that way, she says, "it's an antidote to The Wolf of Wall Street."
"Finance and spirituality are so often seen as disparate, but I started to see this esoteric spirituality reflected in this esoteric finance," Rabins says. "We are all connected, whether through a spark of the divine, as the ancient texts say, or through money. We're all a part of it, no matter what we say."
SEE IT: A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff is at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., 488-5822. 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday and 4 and 7:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 7-9. $20-$35.