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Girls in Trouble: Indie-Folk Songs about Women in Torah

Girls in Trouble
Portland, Oregon United States
Leadership team

Alicia Jo Rabins - singer, songwriter, violinist, poet, Jewish educator.

Prize category
National/International
Operational
5+ years
Target audience
20s & 30s, Adults, Baby Boomers, College Students, Educators, Interfaith, Teens, Unaffiliated, Women & Girls
Categories
Arts & Culture, Gender, Jewish Education, Outreach & Engagement, Spirituality, Text Study

Girls in Trouble, Alicia Jo Rabins' acclaimed indie-folk song cycle about women in Torah, brings the complicated stories of Biblical women to life. Girls in Trouble songs illuminate some of the darkest moments in Torah, stories which reflect the complexity of contemporary teen and adult life; many of these tales are too challenging for children, yet we rarely return to them later, when we need them the most. An internationally touring musician and Jewish educator, Rabins brings these powerful stories into rock clubs and Jewish spaces across the world with her performances; the Girls in Trouble Curriculum empowers other teachers to do the same in their communities.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

Each Girls in Trouble song is based on a different story of a woman or girl in the Torah. Some songs consider famous stories from a new angle: how did Eve feel as her sons clashed? What was Sarah’s perspective on the Binding of Isaac? Others shine a light on little-studied characters like Yiftach’s daughter, Serakh bat Asher, and the daughters of Tzelofchad.

This project combines traditional text study with contemporary indie-folk songs; it began as my masters in Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies at JTS, draws on my two years of text study at Pardes, and is profoundly inspired by the wisdom of Jewish texts, specifically stories about women in Torah.

On the other hand, I believe strongly that Jewish wisdom goes beyond text, and includes women’s rituals, relationship with nature, and the magical spark that occurs when traditions are brought into our personal lives. These elements are also a crucial part of Girls in Trouble.

The wisdom of Torah connects directly to our own lives, and this is what my music brings to life. This wisdom becomes personal when an audience member comes up and tells me that my song about Samson's first fiancee reflects their own recent breakup, when a student writes me to say that their experience of social isolation is eased by knowing that Miriam had a period of exile in the desert, when a retiree reflects on how her own life-long relationship with her sister is mirrored in Rachel and Leah's complicated sisterhood. These moments reflect the personal nature of Jewish wisdom - its applicability, its accessibility, and its profound power.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

A major goal of Girls in Trouble is to make stories of women in Torah accessible and applicable to my audience. My program begins by combining the power of music and words; music is often called “the universal language," and my songs are intentionally written in English, the first language of most of my American listeners, and in a musical vernacular of American folk and indie music.

Our sacred Torah is full of stories which are set in an ancient world, written in Biblical Hebrew, and often involve names that are difficult for native English speakers to pronounce. But the stories themselves are eternal: with just a bit of framing, it becomes clear that the struggles of women in Torah are our struggles. Whether it’s Miriam experiencing a period of social isolation, Hannah struggling with infertility, Rachel and Leah negotiating their sister relationship, or the daughters of Tzelofchad advocating for fair inheritance laws – these stories contextualize our own struggles as not just modern, but fundamentally human.

In writing Girls in Trouble songs, I translate these ancient texts into contemporary American music, drawing on forms from bluegrass ballads to indie-rock. I draw on the power of music as well as my own skills as an artist: the process of opening myself to these stories, encountering them with creativity, respect, and vulnerability, and considering their relevance to my internal life - and by extension, my audience's lives.

Since its inception eight years ago, Girls in Trouble has released three albums, including thirty songs about different Biblical women, and given over three hundred live performances and teaching sessions. These songs have again and again proven to be a powerful vehicle for Torah as a living text, helping audiences of all Jewish backgrounds access the relevance and applicability of our ancient stories.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

Girls in Trouble has brought stories of Biblical women to life for an estimated 50,000+ audience members and participants since the project's inception in 2009. Over the years, I have received a tremendous amount of feedback from a wide range of people. Secular audiences in rock clubs come up after performances saying they had no idea the Torah was so fascinating. Harvard Hillel students express gratitude for seeing women's stories at the center of Jewish education. Rabbinical students, Jewish educators and Hebrew school teachers ask me for curriculum to bring the songs into their classrooms, resulting in the Girls in Trouble Curriculum. Participants in adult education classes at synagogue have reported being shocked by the meaning these stories have for their lives. I've also been lucky to partner with institutions to bring the work beyond my performances and lectures; BimBam (formerly G-dcast) commissioned songs about Parashat Vayakhel and the Book of Ruth, which have been viewed tens of thousands of times, PJ Library included "Rubies" in their Shabbat album, and the Jewish Women's Archive is hosting a series of teacher-training webinars and launching study guides as well. Please see the PDF, below, for some of the most recent feedback on Girls in Trouble's music and teaching.

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

As someone who grew up in a secular Jewish family and was drawn to Jewish texts and traditions as a young adult, I am continually grateful for the wisdom I encounter in these texts, and continually experiencing its applications in my own life.
To my mind, the most powerful form of applied Jewish wisdom is the wisdom of story. Story gives meaning to our lives; scientists say we are hard-wired for it. The power of connecting with our ancient stories, and twinning them with our personal stories, is profound.

I believe that applied Jewish wisdom calls on us to relate to story in a personal, meaningful way - to connect to our ancient heritage, myths, legends and texts with our own hearts and minds, our own complicated life experiences. In my work as an artist and Jewish educator, I am blessed to engage every day with applied Jewish wisdom, combining my passion for helping people connect personally to Torah with my profound faith in the radiant ability of art to open hearts and minds.