Torah scholar. Indie rocker. Nary the two shall meet; at least that’s what conventional thinking would say.
But don’t tell that to Alicia Jo Rabins, the Brooklyn-via-Baltimore songwriter and leader of a rock outfit called Girls in Trouble. For her, the Torah provides perfect fodder for catchy, poignant songs. It’s full of stories of lust, love, family strife and lessons learned.
And Rabins aims to bring lesser-known Torah stories to light through music, namely stories of — you guessed it — biblical girls, who happen to be in trouble.
Rabins’ band grew out of her interest to create art not about, say, Moses parting the Red Sea, but from “stories that aren’t often told. A lot are violent, they’re often dark and not taught in Hebrew schools, which is probably good,” she said.
One key component to qualify, though, was that the subject matter had to show the “complexity and drama and the internal experience of the character. [The songs] are not ‘I’m angry! Women are mistreated!’ I’m aiming to translate the stories to be relatable today.”
In “Snow/Scorpions and Spiders,” for example, Rabins sings with a plaintive lilt of Miriam after God exiled her for criticizing her brother Moses. To a casual listener, the song is a swaying, acoustic folk tune with a hummable melody. But just like an indie rock Talmud, the meaning comes from a deeper reading.
“If you look at history, [exile] happens all the time,” Rabins said. “It’s not just the Torah. People are on top, then on the bottom. The song answers an emotional question about how it feels to be in the center, then on the edge.”
Rabins’ questions may come with no answers, but the 10 tracks on Girls in Trouble’s first album spiral into the minds of some of the Torah’s often under-discussed women.
Rabin’s curiosity doesn’t come from casual thinking — after graduating from Columbia University, she spent two years in Jerusalem studying ancient Jewish texts in a yeshiva.
“I grew up in this feminist household; I was told I could be whatever I wanted. So studying these texts, I came up against these old worldviews about women,” said Rabins. “It was an interesting challenge to balance the deep respect I had for the wisdom of the texts with my own feminine sensibilities.”
The result of Rabins’ careful examination was to imagine herself as those women, and express their stories in song — not so surprising, considering Rabins has been playing the violin since she was 3 and, more recently, in the gypsy-folk band Golem.
With Girls in Trouble, which, on the road, also includes guitarist Elaina Morgan, accordion player Jonathan Vincent and bassist Aaron Hartman of Old Time Relijun, Rabins turns down the madness of Golem for a softer, introspective but no less engaging listen. “Where You Go” mixes dreamy keyboards with gently plucked guitar and Rabins’ gorgeous, gentle melody; “I Was a Desert” lays rolling guitars over slow-plodding percussion before bursting into a swirl of violin.
Rabins plans to turn out two more Girls in Trouble albums; the project, she said, is a trilogy, because “30 songs about biblical women are probably enough.”
For now, though, she is on tour — as an artist first, but also an educator.
“I wanted to bring the stories out, partially for the sake of the characters’ stories being heard,” she said, “but also for people who are interested in the Torah, but don’t have the tools or desire to sit down and find the good stories.”
Want to go?
Girls in Trouble, with The Extraordinaries and Vindell
Garfield Artworks, 8 p.m.
Sunday, March 28
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)