“A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff” Musically Excommunicates a Villain of the Great Recession

The Portland-made film explores the lies of the man behind the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme.

Alicia Jo Rabins still recalls the irony of being an artist on Wall Street in 2009, watching finance workers trudge away with desks emptied into cardboard boxes.

“It was like, wait a minute they’re supposed to be the ones with job security. How am I sitting in my office writing poems?” Rabins says.

From the unlikely vantage of a nonprofit art space in a Wall Street high-rise, the musician, writer and Torah scholar (who relocated to Portland in 2013) had a front seat to the market crash’s fallout, but also to that of one particularly bad actor: convicted fraudster Bernie Madoff.

All the complexity that the disgraced hedge-fund chairman represented to Rabins swirls throughout her debut film, A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, which has its Portland premiere at the Hollywood Theatre on Sept. 1 and hits video on demand Sept. 6. Anchored by Rabins’ original musical numbers, Kaddish explores the sheer breadth of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme (his victims lost an estimated $65 billion), his bizarrely “kind eyes,” and his betrayal of the Jewish community.

It’s perhaps that last aspect that most inspired Rabins’ one woman show turned film. After hearing that a Palm Beach synagogue had recited the kaddish (a traditional mourning prayer that, in this case, signified excommunication) for Madoff in 2009, an entire world of spiritual meaning unfurled for her.

“I wanted to write a melody that would capture the sadness that someone could’ve lost his humanity to the point that we no longer consider him in any way part of the community, which seems justified in this case,” Rabins says.

Rabins estimates she staged her show 15 to 20 times in New York and Portland before meeting with the film’s eventual director, Alicia J. Rose, to discuss documenting it. Rose—a veteran Portland musician, photographer and videographer—bluntly encouraged Rabins into unfamiliar artistic territory, urging her to make a movie rather than simply filming the show.

“You have an opportunity here to do something much bigger that’s going to reach so many more people,” says Rose, who’s also directed the web series The Benefits of Gusbandry and music videos for Bob Mould, Blitzen Trapper and First Aid Kit.

A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff is both meta-creative nonfiction and a chamber musical, often led by Rabins’ violin. While some songs feature the artist playing her younger self, several more find Rabins in character as risk assessors and FBI agents based on people she interviewed in 2009 and 2010 to study Madoff’s misdeeds.

Portland dancer and teacher Tahni Holt choreographed those scenes, while Zak Margolis contributed key atmospheric animation (as he did for the stage show). But perhaps the most underrated Portland contributor was the Falcon Building, which offered the production ample room to visually re-create Rabins’ striking Wall Street arts hub on the film’s “very modest” budget. The crew even had the run of multiple empty levels of the Falcon to approximate the notorious 17th floor of Madoff’s office, the center of his illegal machinations.

Perhaps Kaddish’s most resonant idea is the suggestion that Madoff crafted his Big Lie not from wizardry (as the title of Barry Levinson’s 2017 film about Madoff, The Wizard of Lies, suggests), but a metastasizing instinct to simply deny life’s unavoidable losses—financial and otherwise.

“The reason I’m so drawn to artistically challenging that idea of infinite expansion, which we’re essentially born into as American citizens and people living in a capitalist society, is it’s not a holistic way of viewing life,” Rabins says. “Failure, imperfection, downsides, downslides, grief are going to be part of life. I really came face to face with my own tolerance for the possibility of failure through [this] process.”

Despite the film’s period distinctness, Rose finds comfort in the relevance of Kaddish beyond the 2008 crash—and even those strangers still coming out of the woodwork to tell her and Rabins that they were impacted by the crimes of Madoff (who was 82 when he died in prison in 2021). Amid this new decade’s many social upheavals, Rose hopes the film is a useful tool for processing collective trauma.

“You can look at Madoff as a cipher [for] any controversial, crime-doing, against-humanity person,” Rose says. “You could do a kaddish for whomever at the end of the day. My biggest purpose in wanting to bring this to the screen was providing people, Jewish people, anybody really, a guide to heal through pain we all experience together.”

SEE IT: A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff plays at the Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., 503-493-1128, hollywoodtheatre.org. 7:30 pm Thursday, Sept. 1. $8-$10.