Musician, poet, and Torah scholar Alicia Jo Rabins is having a moment. Her recently published book of poetry, “Divinity School,” won the prestigious American Poetry Review Honickman Prize. Her band, Girls in Trouble, just released their third album, and she’s currently touring the country—from Seattle to Baltimore—to read and perform her new work. All of this, plus two small kids and a musician husband, make for a very creative and busy family. Alicia took a moment between shows in San Diego and San Francisco to let us peer into her colorful reality. Be sure to enter the giveaway for Alicia’s book of poetry at the bottom of this post.
“Divinity School” was just published, and you also just released the third Girls in Trouble album. You’re touring for the book, touring with the band, and you have two little ones at home. How are you managing it all?
Well, a lot of times, the two little ones aren’t at home; they are actually with us on the road!
I could not do this without my husband, Aaron—he’s been a full co-parent since the very beginning. He’s a musician and real estate broker, and he plays bass in Girls in Trouble with me. Since we are both self-employed and music is part of our jobs, we just somehow make it work: We load our instruments and kids into the car, head to the airport, and fly out to do shows. Once our kids are old enough to be in school, and when we have to pay for both kids’ tickets, this isn’t going to work… but so far we have managed to swing it. My family has also been great—we live in Portland, Oregon and my parents are on the East Coast, so my mom is coming on our East Coast November tour with us as a “Grandma Tour Nanny”!
Also, day care is key. I used to have the unconscious fantasy that I could stay home with my kids all day and bake cookies and also have a serious career. It turns out, not so much, at least for me. It took me a while to accept that my kids spend much of the day away from family while they’re still so young, but I’m grateful to have a wonderful place nearby where they can play and learn while I work.
Speaking of parents, you wrote the Torah MOMentary column for Kveller, which was a weekly Torah commentary from a mother’s perspective (one of my most favorite series on this site). How has being a parent affected the work you do now?
That’s so sweet. Thank you.
I think being a parent has both made me much more compassionate and also much more no-bullshit. Compassionate, because it cracks my heart open every day—my love for my kids, and the challenges of parenting, and the rough edges of myself that come up. I never realized how hard it was to be a parent, and that makes me realize that I have no idea what people are dealing with in their lives.
On the other hand, I also have less tolerance for things that feel like a waste of time, or frivolous, or unnecessary drama. I used to care more what people thought of me. Now I just don’t have time or the emotional energy. My priority is trying to be a good parent and partner, doing my work, helping support my family, and taking care of myself so I can keep doing those things. It’s been really clarifying.
Your music is all about strong women making it work! Tell us about the latest album, “Open the Ground.”
This is our third album of indie-folk songs about the complicated lives of biblical women. Girls in Trouble began as my Masters’ thesis, and I never thought it would grow into this very unlikely touring band!
This album includes songs about more famous ladies like Ruth, Hagar, Sarah, and Eve; fairly obscure ones like the daughters of Zelophehad; and ones that are sort of in-between, like Lot’s wife and Noah’s wife.
I wrote this album over three years, and over those years I had two kids. I was pregnant with our first during a lot of the songwriting process, and I was pregnant with our second during the recording! I definitely found myself thinking a lot about these characters as mothers. For example, I thought a lot about what it meant that Eve was the first mother. She had no blogs, no “What to Expect,” no passed-down wisdom, no mother of her own. As a new mom, I often felt very overwhelmed; writing about Eve in this way helped me realize how much support is out there, even if it was sometimes hard for me to access it.
And how does your poetry intersect with your music?
I’ve been passionate about poetry and music since I was a little kid. I grew up playing violin and writing music and writing poems, but I saw them as separate until I started writing songs in my late 20s. The great thing about songwriting is that I get to use my word brain and my music brain at the same time! I also wrote a one-woman show, “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff,” that combines music, spoken text, and songs, and that was super fun because I got to explore all of them together.
What is your next professional venture?
I’m in the middle of writing a curriculum about women in Torah through the arts, based on Girls in Trouble songs, but also including visual art and rabbinic stories. It’s for teens and adults in classrooms, study groups, women’s groups, and even for individual people who want to learn about women in Torah on their own.
My hope is that when I’m done, I’ll turn it into a book about how the complicated lives of women in Torah can help us think about the struggles and challenges of our own modern lives—and also my own spiritual journey from secular suburban 90s kid to Torah scholar/artist/mother.
And during this year of touring for the book and album, I’ll be working on my next book of poems about pregnancy, birth, and motherhood.
Wow! So when you stop to take a breath, what makes you kvell?
When Sylvie (3) gives Elijah (1) a kiss and says, “I love you, Ewijah,” it’s pretty much kvell-central-station in my heart.
Don’t forget to enter the giveaway below to win a copy of Alicia’s book “Divinity School.” We will choose one lucky winner next Wednesday, October 14, 2015.