After the first time Perl Wolfe and Dalia Shusterman met up to play music, it was really a no-brainer that the two would be a band. The two — both rock musicians eager to work on a project geared toward women — clicked instantly, forming their group, Bulletproof Stockings, in 2011. Their connection, though, extends much further than the music they play. Although it may sound like an unlikely scenario, both founders of the emerging Brooklyn-based band are also members of the Hasidic community within Crown Heights. The songs on their first EP, Down to the Top, might remind you of a more rock-oriented Fiona Apple or Regina Spektor. Every so often, though, their piano-driven tunes integrate traditional Hasidic melodies, a new element for their rapidly expanding secular audience.
Last month, like many other up-and-coming bands before them, Bulletproof Stockings played a gig at Arlene’s Grocery on the Lower East Side. Their set had everything you’d expect to find at a rock show — hands swayed in the air and folks jumped around wildly to the band’s anthemic choruses. There was, though, one other distinct feature of the crowd: The audience was composed exclusively of women.
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That was no mere coincidence. Although there are men out there eager to come out to their shows, Wolfe and Shusterman choose not to play in front of male fans due to the religious laws of the Hasidic community. As a result of these atypical circumstances, the women in the audience get to experience something totally unique from the male-dominated spots they so often encounter. The spirit of the Stockings’ live shows is far different from and much more relaxed than what concertgoers might be used to. “The focus is women’s empowerment,” Wolfe says. Shusterman adds, “It’s about creating a women’s space.”
And that was always part of the plan, even from the very beginning of their collaboration. “We saw this going big and expanding beyond our community. It was never intended to just be for Orthodox Jewish women,” Wolfe explains. “It was just intended for women, in general.”
Still, despite that intention, stereotypes of what life is like within the Hasidic community have led to some criticism and accusations of discrimination in regard to the band’s women-only stipulation.
In response to this negative press, Wolfe says, “Some people make a lot of assumptions. They think we’re going to discriminate against non-Jewish women, non-Orthodox women, or non-heterosexual women.” That, she says, is simply not the case. “When did this become a religious event? This is a rock concert.” Shusterman has a similar reaction to the detractors: “It’s not a response to anybody else. It’s a different way of being a feminist — we’re not competing with men and we’re not trying to do anything like men. We’re just doing what we do and we’re doing it for ourselves.”
The women of Bulletproof Stockings are not so concerned with the preexisting norms of the rock world — they work tirelessly to carve out their own place in the rock scene, under circumstances much different from the stereotypical musician. In particular, Shusterman is widowed and a mother to four young sons. While the boys are off at school, the two women, who share an apartment, practice, write songs, and devise new ways of performing their material.
But not all of their daytime hours are devoted to perfecting musical lines and scribbling down newly conceived song lyrics. “We take care of literally everything — booking, interviews, the website, merchandise, and whatever else,” says Wolfe. “We really run everything ourselves.” They acknowledge that, at times, all of these responsibilities can be a challenge to balance, but there’s certainly a benefit to all the burden they take on: They have complete control, the freedom to do what they want with their career.
Considering the strong media attention focused on the band and all the new fans they’re sweeping up along the way, it’s almost hard to believe they’ve put out just one studio release thus far. Next year, they say, will likely bring a full-length record and even more touring. Don’t expect them to ease up on the no-men policy, though. As Bulletproof Stockings continue to grow, they know they’ve got to stick to their guns. “There’s really a need for it,” says Shusterman. “It’s very important to a lot of people and they’re appreciating it, even people who would have never thought about it.” Women are empowered by the all-girl environment, and also are given a chance to learn about women facing circumstances different from their own. In Wolfe’s words: “Rock doesn’t have to be about sex and drugs, and the Hasidic world doesn’t have to be this uptight, insular community. There’s so many misunderstandings on both sides, and it’s really awesome to create our own space and do things our own way.”
Bulletproof Stockings play Wednesday, September 10, at Bar Matchless.