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‘Girls in Trouble’: Portland musician Alicia Jo Rabins’ interpretation of Jewish women in the Bible comes to television

The YouTube series examines the stories of minor – but consequential – characters through a progressive and feminist lens.

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“There is something so rock and roll about Vashti refusing to parade herself before the men of the kingdom,” Alicia Jo Rabins says in “Girls in Trouble.” She add the queen “stood up for herself, she honored her boundaries in a culture that told her that wasn’t okay. And that’s badass.” Illustration by: Jessica Tamar Deutsch
“There is something so rock and roll about Vashti refusing to parade herself before the men of the kingdom,” Alicia Jo Rabins says in “Girls in Trouble.” She adds, the queen “stood up for herself; she honored her boundaries in a culture that told her that wasn’t okay. And that’s badass.” Illustration by: Jessica Tamar Deutsch

Portland musician and songwriter Alicia Jo Rabins has expanded Girls in Trouble, her exploration and reinterpretation of stories of women in the Jewish Bible, to television, creating a multi-genre docuseries blending interviews, research, music, and animation in the spirit of shows such as Salt Fat Acid Heat and series by chef/author Anthony Bourdain.

Examining the stories of minor characters in the Torah (the name of the Jewish bible and the first books of the Christian bible) through a progressive, feminist, and modern lens, Rabins hopes the series will challenge stereotypes about those characters, who at first blush seem minor, but often play important and consequential roles.

The first, 15-minute episode aired on YouTube on March 12, during the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates the salvation of the Jewish people from death at the hands of the Persian empire.

You’d think the first episode would focus on Queen Esther, a Jewish woman who marries the Persian king and helps save the Jewish people. Instead, Girls in Trouble focuses on the seemingly less important woman often viewed as the story’s anti-hero: Queen Vashti.

Vashti was the Persian queen before Esther. After days of raucous feasting, the king commands Vashti to parade herself in front of his advisers and other revelers, to show off her beauty. She refuses. The king banishes her.

For refusing to follow the king’s command, Vashti is often interpreted negatively. In the episode, Rabins challenges that narrative. Why did Vashti refuse the king’s command? Rabins researched different Rabbinic interpretations of the story, discovering that in many, Vashti is commanded to wear only her crown. 

Rabins, however, favors the simple, literal reading of the text, or pshat, which she contends is also the most powerful. Vashti “may not have much power,” Rabins, who narrates the episode, said. “But she has her boundaries and her self-respect.”

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Alicia Jo Rabins sings and plays fiddle on "I'm Not Dressing Up for You" during the first episode of "Girls in Trouble," which tells the story of Queen Vashti.
Alicia Jo Rabins sings and plays fiddle on “I’m Done Dressing Up for You” during the first episode of “Girls in Trouble,” which tells the story of Queen Vashti.

The episode ends with Rabins singing I’m Done Dressing Up for You, a song she wrote about Vashti. Both the song and television episode portray Vashti as a rebellious, ancient feminist blazing her own trail. In the song, she tells the king:

Go get yourself a pretty new wife, get yourself a pretty new wife
I’ll walk out that door and get myself a life
I’m done dressing up for you…

The king does get a new wife: Esther. She initially conceals her Jewish identity until after she is queen and can more easily influence the king. 

Ultimately, Vashti’s actions are the catalyst for the events that save the Jewish people.

“It’s a remarkable counter narrative to Esther,” said Sonya Sanford, Portland-based chef, writer, and cookbook author. Sanford, who is of Ukrainian-Jewish descent, was interviewed in an upcoming episode focused on Esther. Esther, she said, is often portrayed as a “good” character for obeying the king. And she waits for the right moment to reveal her Jewish identity, in contrast to Vashti’s brazen refusal.

“Vashti lost all her power in revealing what she wanted –– to not be paraded around in front of men,” Sanford said.

But there is room to imagine a potentially happy ending for her. Vashti’s story ends with her banishment.  “We don’t know what happened to her,” Sanford said. “Getting banished doesn’t sound good. Maybe it was the best thing that ever happened to Vashti.”

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“We can imagine it,” Sanford added, which is at the heart of Girls in Trouble. Ultimately, the television asks what is trouble for these women? Rebuke or punishment at the hands of male authority? Or carving out space for autonomy and resistance?

Through examining different Rabbinic interpretations with a feminist perspective and a healthy dose of skepticism toward the common understanding of these biblical stories, a compelling, modern reframing of the Vashti story is created. “How to say ‘no’ even when it might upset people? How to say ‘no’ even when it might have consequences for us?” the episode begins. “This takes courage, and that courage is at the heart of the story of Vashti.”

Additional episodes of Girls in Trouble will be released slowly, Rabins said, to coincide with Jewish holidays and as funding is secured. Future episodes will focus on Esther, Moses’ sister Miriam, Ruth, and Sarah. 

Portland musician, writer, and Torah teacher Alicia Jo Rabins says the concept for "'Girls in Trouble' is inspired by food and travel shows -- but rather than visiting a location and exploring its food, culture and landscape, each ... episode explores a Biblical woman’s story through storytelling, song, animation, and interviews with diverse Jewish artists and activists."
The concept for “Girls in Trouble,” Rabins says, “is inspired by food and travel shows — but rather than visiting a location and exploring its food, culture and landscape, each … episode explores a Biblical woman’s story through storytelling, song, animation, and interviews with diverse Jewish artists and activists.”

The series, filmed in Portland and New York City, is a collaboration by Rabins, filmmaker Alicia J. Rose, and producer Lara Cuddy. It is the latest iteration of Girls in Trouble, which serendipitously has become the focus of Rabins’ career. A violinist who grew up in a secular home, she first created an album (five songs of which, with academic notations, became her master’s thesis in Jewish Women’s Studies). She released a second and third album in 2012 and 2014; Rabins has also authored learning guides for schoolchildren.

Drawn to the Torah’s “ancient epic stories,” Rabins discovered that many of its female characters, while not getting a lot in ink in the Torah, are featured in dramatic, challenging moments and play a “victorious underdog role.”

Rabbi Ariel Stone, the rabbi of Portland’s Shir Tikvah, said that many of the Torah’s female characters are seen as secondary characters. To see them as main or consequential characters, “you come away with a fair amount of questions, a fair amount of space” for reinterpretation and deeper understanding of the story’s meaning.

She added it is rare for women in the Bible to have direct or overt power. Characters, including Esther, “have figured out how to manipulate the overt power,” Stone said. “Where can you lean? Where can you push?”

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She likens the stories to Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play in which women, during a time of war, refuse to have sex with men, ultimately forcing them to negotiate for peace. 

Stone points to Exodus, the beginning of which features two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. They disobey the Egyptian pharaoh’s edict to kill all Jewish-born male babies. The two women thus save Moses’ life. One of the most prominent characters in Jewish and Christian traditions, Moses liberates the Jewish people from slavery.

“If it weren’t for a bunch of women, Moses wouldn’t have existed,” Stone said. “The two midwives have more guts than a whole battalion of men when it comes to standing up to pharaoh.”

One of Stone’s favorite stories is that of Judith (the Book of Judith is part of the Apocrypha, biblical stories usually excluded from the Jewish and Christian canons). In its introduction to the Book of Judith, the New Oxford Annotated Bible describes Judith as “morally ambiguous: although pious, faithful, and religiously observant, she lies, seduces, and murders … she is often seen as a model for human liberation.”

An Assyrian army has besieged the city where Judith lives, Bethulia. Bethulia is near Jerusalem, so the besiegement threatens all of Judea. One night, Judith walks to the enemy camp, where she is captured. But, Stone said, “with nothing but her good looks and her determination,” she is taken to the Assyrian general.

She seduces him, getting him more drunk than he’d ever been in his life. Once he falls asleep, she cuts off his head. She returns to Bethulia, carrying the general’s head in a bag. She shows his head to the townspeople, proclaiming, “the Lord has struck him down by the hand of a woman.” Without their general, the Assyrian army is crippled, and the siege ends.  

“She creates a situation and takes advantage of it,” Stone said. “Talk about a girl in trouble.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amanda Waldroupe is a freelance journalist and writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, Bklyner, The Brooklyn Rail, InvestigateWest, The Oregonian, the Portland Tribune, Oregon Humanities, and many others. She has been a fellow and writer-in-residence at the Logan Nonfiction Program, the Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism program, Alderworks Alaska, and the Sou’wester Artist Residency Program.
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