When Alicia Jo Rabins wrote “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff,” she had no idea it would come out the year Madoff actually died. “Wow. It’s an odd experience to have my phone blowing up because someone I’ve never met died in his 80s!” she said when I emailed her.
Though the Kaddish prayer is generally said for the dead, Rabins’ film is not about Madoff’s death at all. It began as a one-woman show that Rabins, the film’s author and star, conceived when she developed an obsession with the pyramid scheme mastermind during an artist’s residency in Manhattan. She adapted it into a movie with director Alicia J. Rose, whose expertise lies in directing visually rich music videos. (Yes, they’re both named Alicia; they go by AJo and ARo to make things easier.)
The result is an experimental, 75-minute art piece grappling with identity and betrayal. There are mesmerizing sequences of synchronized swimmers and witchy rituals created by Rose. There are songs that Rabins composed based on interviews with financial risk analysts. There’s campy makeup and wigs so Rabins can play every character.
None of it is really about Madoff.
And yet the film — which is screening in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 25 at the Castro Theatre and online from July 22 to Aug. 1 — is poised to be the perfect template to understand and process the investor’s legacy in the wake of his death.
“It’s a kind of mystical vision of everything being interconnected,” said Rabins, who lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two children. “And that’s how the financial market works, too. In modern finance, when there’s a crash on Wall Street, it affects the entire world, people across the world who have nothing to do with finance.”
Rabins had heard that a congregation in Palm Beach, Florida (where many Madoff victims were members) said Kaddish for him, but only to excommunicate him. Though that turned out to be a false rumor, it raised a provocative question: How does the Jewish community handle someone it doesn’t want to claim?
“I hated thinking of Madoff as a Jew. I mean, he’s pretty much the definition of bad for the Jews,” Rabins says in the film. And yet, she says she can’t help but feel connected to him, and even feel some responsibility for his sins; he looks like her dad. In fact, she observes in the film, his Jewishness was core to his success — many of his victims came from the same community and trusted him as a fellow Jew, a pillar of the community.
“Someone rises to power simply by telling people what they want to hear,” Rabins wrote in an email. “His returns were statistically impossible. So the fact that so many in the financial world bought into it reflects a sort of messianism, I think.”
In one scene in the film, Rabins chants biblical curses for Madoff, of harvests decimated by locusts and children that will die — curses that have come true, with the death of both of Madoff’s sons before Madoff himself died, she pointed out.
With Madoff’s death in prison, it seems as though the biblical curses have been fully realized, and it’s time for the final Jewish ritual — Kaddish. “I wonder if anyone will actually say Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, now that he’s actually dead,” mused Rabins. “I doubt it.” And yet, she already has.