NOTE: Bernard “Bernie” Madoff was the infamous architect of the largest Ponzi scheme in history, worth about $64.8 billion, that earned him a 150-year prison term. He died behind bars on April 14, 2021 at the age of 82.
Like many great collaborations, it seems like it was “beshert” or destiny that brought talented artists Alicia Jo Rabins and Alicia J. Rose together. It all started when Rabins opened a misguided email.
“It was about music, but it wasn’t about my music,” says Rabins. “My husband (bassist Aaron Hartman) is also a musician and has been in Portland for a long time. He knew Rose from the music scene and when he read it said, ‘Oh, I know what happened – this is for this other person.’ So I forwarded it to her – and became really fascinated by her work.”
Later, when Rabins was looking for someone to help her film her theater show, “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff,” she thought she would hire Rose as a consultant. “And then she came to me and said, ‘I think what you should do is turn it into a real movie.’ And then we were off to the races.”
CREATION FROM COLLAPSE
In 2008, musician and poet Rabins worked an artist residency in a dilapidated office building on Wall Street around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange. A variety of artists had the entire ninth floor to hone their crafts. Rabins was expecting to have some quality time with her violin, composing and writing songs; what she wasn’t expecting was to have a front-row seat to the economic collapse happening at the time.
When she first starting seeing the scandalous reports on Bernard “Bernie” Madoff, she admits she experienced complex feelings. “First, there was this unconscious shame that someone from my community did this terrible thing, but then he looks like my dad, who’s so lovely,” remembers Rabins. “So I have this involuntary warm feeling when I see his eyes, which is very incongruous with this terrible criminal.”
As she began to learn more about what actually happened, she became fascinated with the fact that his returns weren’t that high. Everyone was assuming that the victims were greedy and were ignoring the signs of impossibly high returns, but they weren’t exceptionally high returns at all. They were steady and matched the market average but without any of the usual ups and downs.
“It started to feel like a deeper story that wasn’t just about one criminal, but about the human longing for an escape from the ups and downs of life,” says Rabins. “I became interested in this sort of metaphorical and spiritual aspect of it. And then I began to talk about it with people, and I realized person after person had connections that I would not have expected.”
These connections weren’t just in the Jewish community; she found them within her artist friends as well. “It just kept feeling closer and closer to home in surprising ways,” she says. “I just wanted to hear their stories. And by the time I did the fourth interview, I thought, ‘I have to turn this into songs.’”
She did more than that. Rabins created a one-woman musical show, “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff” – described as “a hybrid of memoir docudrama and narrative fantasy.” The show premiered with a live band at Joe’s Pub in New York City in 2012. In 2014, Rabins released a live studio album of the music performed in the show.
“Then I moved to Portland, and theater producer Boom Arts invited me to develop the piece further, and it was presented at Portland Playhouse,” says Rabins. “So that became the second incarnation of the theater piece, which was still a solo show. But we let go of a live band and added full-length animation created by Portland artist Zak Margolis.”
Zak’s animation was projected on a giant screen behind Rabins as she performed the show. Rabins toured nationally with that version of the theater show on and off for a few years. “I felt ready to stop touring that piece, which is what led me to want to document it before I put it to bed. And that’s what led me to Alicia Rose,” she says.
Alicia J. Rose had been spending the last four years making her own life into a web series called “The Benefits of Gusbandry.” “It chronicles my relationships with my gay best friends (gusbands), and being 40 and single and not knowing what to do with myself – and Jewish,” says Rose.
With “The Benefits of Gusbandry” she wanted to create a comedic and fun show, but after working on 10 episodes it left her pretty exhausted. She was curious when Rabins reached out to be a consultant. After watching the video of the original piece, listening to the music and reading the script, she admitted the project captured her imagination.
Having made several dozen music videos in her career, she initially approached it from that angle. “When I listened to all of the songs, I saw music videos, and when I watched the rest of the show, I saw the potential for a narrative wrap around with fantasy and all these things that I thought had a lot of potential to spring to life cinematically,” says Rose.
When they met in person, Rose explained to Rabins that she could spend the money on doing the videography, but she felt that the story had so much more potential and could be “magical on a much greater scale and has the potential to reach a larger audience.”
There was another person in the meeting that day. The videographer that Rabins had hired to shoot the live show was there thinking he was meeting with her and a consultant, but as Rose started sharing her ideas and the energy in the room began rising, it appeared that the project would soon be heading in a different direction.
“The poor guy was sitting there with a signed contract to do videography of the live show, and by the end of the conversation, I think A. Jo and I had whirling dervished ourselves into this idea, and he was just like, ‘I’ll show myself out.’” jokes Rose.
That was the beginning of A. Jo’s and A. Ro’s (the nicknames they have given each other) creative collaboration. They began with adapting the script and then decided to do some cinematography in New York to create a concept trailer to help to solidify the idea, and before they knew it, three years had passed, and they had done the whole thing.
The challenge was taking a one-woman stage show where Rabins addressed the audience directly for much of the time and turning it into something more vivid visually.
Coming from the world of editing music videos, commercials and short-form comedy, Rose is all about keeping it “snappy.” “For me as a director and the editor, I wanted to make this the most useful 75 minutes of a movie you’ve watched,” says Rose. “We had a piece to bring to light that needed some poetry to it. So It was an interesting challenge to bring the poetry in but still keep it quick enough where you’re just moving right along with it. You might have to watch it a few times to let it sit with you because there’s a lot packed into every moment.”
One of the more unique scenes in the film has to do with synchronized swimming.
“We thought we could do a mandala with synchronized swimmers, and I was connected to the synchronized swimming group in Portland called the Rose City Raindrops,” says Rose. They’re racially, bodily and age-wise very diverse and then we brought in a bunch of older ladies to be part of the kaddish outside of the pool. We had a great representation of womanhood in the context of the moment. I’ve also been wanting to do synchronized swimming with a drone for a million years. So for me, it was like, yes!”
Adding to the visual appeal of the film is Zak’s animation. “A lot of it is inspired by the original concept of the stage animation,” says Rabins. “But he extensively created new animation. I would say 85% of the animation is new.”
Zak is not the only Portlander involved with the production. Aside from the little bit they shot in Manhattan, some window and outside views, all the interior shots were done in Portland. It was a suggestion from producer Lara Cuddy to keep costs down.
“We had an incredible crew of all Portlanders. A lot of women, non-binary, trans people. We did everything we could to make it as diverse as possible,” says Rose. “It was very important to A. Jo too. All of us were like, ‘This is a female lead production.’ So that was important for us to represent our community that way and be able to help bring people into that experience.
“We didn’t have a lot of money. This is an extraordinarily indie-budgeted film. None of the keys have taken a penny. We took every penny we got, and we put it into the film.”
CONNECTING JUDAISM AND ART
Rabins was born in Portland, but her family moved to the East Coast when she was four months old. She met Aaron in New York and, after falling in love, they returned to Portland.
She grew up with minimal Jewish direction. Her family did not live in a Jewish neighborhood and she had no Jewish friends growing up. Rabins did have a bat mitzvah, but she had to travel across town for Hebrew school.
“It was not integrated into the rest of my life at all. And I’m a person who values integration,” says Rabins. “I think I’ve always had a deep spiritual curiosity and hunger, so I would make up my own little rituals and find ways for my own needs for spiritual practice because the Judaism that I encountered had almost no content.”
Things changed for Rabins when she attended Barnard College in New York City. She says the school was comprised of “half radical feminists and half Orthodox Jewish women.” Being the former, she struck up a close friendship with an Orthodox woman who introduced her to that world.
“We started studying some Torah together, and she brought me to her house for Orthodox Rosh Hashanah, so that kind of kicked off a deep interest in the traditions as well as the text,” says Rabins. “I am a poet, and that’s what I was studying undergrad, so I instantly fell in love with the literary and textual tradition of Judaism.”
After she graduated from college, Rabins went to Jerusalem to study at a progressive Yeshiva called Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. She had intended to go for one year but ended up staying for two years of full-time study and practice.
“When I came back at age 23, I began this long process of integrating my practice as a writer and musician with my newfound passion for Jewish text and traditions. I also needed a job, so I got hired to teach remedial fourth grade Hebrew,” says Rabins. “That began my career as a Jewish educator, which has been my passionate day job all along, and obviously, is inseparable from my art at this point.
Rose, on the other hand, has lived in Portland since 1995. A transplant from San Francisco, she fell in love with Oregon when she was on tour playing the accordion and returned for an indefinite stay. Since arriving, she has been immersed in the music, film and photography world in Portland.
She grew up with her grandparents in a semi-Orthodox home, constantly going to temple, so she had a different experience than Rabins. She also lived in Los Angeles when she was younger and attended a high school that was 75% Jewish.
“I experienced it as a misogynistic patriarchal culture, and it was tough for me, so I had a real period of rejection,” remembers Rose. “I had the choice of having a bat mitzvah or going to San Francisco to go to Ripley’s Believe It or Not – well, I chose San Francisco.”
She admits that there was always a part of her that regretted her decision, but she was just so turned off at that point.
“I’ve always felt extremely culturally and community-wise very Jewish. I spend a lot of time in the music community and all these places where Judaism is not a part of it,” says Rose.
I think when I met A. Jo, I just felt this warmth of spirit and this beauty of a progressive feminist soul embracing Judaism in a way that made me feel comfortable with it.
“This is like me going deep into a project about this part of myself that I’ve kept at arm’s length because of my negative experience growing up, and it’s kind of blown my world open on that level and given me a chance to explore Judaism on my terms through my art.”
OUT IN THE WORLD
“A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff” made its U.S. premiere at the Portland International Film Festival in March and it was also featured at the Ashland Independent Film Festival in April. Their next stop is the Washington Jewish Film and Music Festival from May 23-30.
They have applied to more than 30 film festivals, and one advantage about many of them still being virtual is that people across the nation can watch from the comfort of their home. So far, the film has been very well received and both Rabins and Rose are thrilled.
“I feel so grateful that folks are getting it,” says Rose. “You know, they’re resonating with it on the same level that we are. That is just powerful, and honestly, the greatest gift any artists could receive from any art that we make.”
“I’m a writer and musician, so I’m used to being on stage, but this was never part of the plan, and it’s been glorious,” admits Rabins. “I got to draw on every bit of training and every discipline that I’ve ever worked in, from my writing to co-adapt the script with A. Ro and every part of my performance skills and musical training. Not only to perform the songs, but to compose the music and the score for the film; and record it with musicians collaborating remotely. I’m still pinching myself that I got to do this. It’s been an incredible adventure, and now I’m itching to make another film.”
As for the title of the film, the report of a kaddish being held to excommunicate Bernie Madoff in a Florida community that was especially hard hit by his deceit, ended up being a false report.
“I thought I heard my friend say it, and perhaps she did, but it definitely didn’t happen – but the idea of it captured my imagination,” says Rabins.
“I think one way to look at this film is that it’s a film about the power of human imagination. I think sometimes people go into it thinking, ‘Why would I want to watch something about Bernie Madoff,’ but it’s not really about Bernie Madoff. It’s really about imagination and healing and how spirituality can support us through nitty-gritty, difficult, real-world experiences, both communally and personally.”
Rose adds, “The way that A. Jo processed Bernie Madoff in her writing of the original piece and then what we were able to do to expand upon it in the movie, as she has said before, Bernie Madoff served simply as a cipher for understanding and for how to process collective trauma through art.”
Perhaps that is the real reason why the film is resonating so well with its viewers. We are all searching for healing from the collective trauma that has gripped us this past year.
For more information on the film, visit akaddishforberniemadoff.com.