They wear leather jackets, leopard print, and lots of black; high heels, lipstick, and opaque tights — the self-satirizing namesake for the world’s first all-girl, all-kosher rock band, Bulletproof Stockings.
On the streets of Crown Heights, home to one of Brooklyn’s largest Hasidic communities, Dalia Shusterman, Perl Wolfe, Dana Pestun, and Elisheva Maister, covered head to toe in long sleeves, long skirts, and, yes, thick stockings, hardly stand out from other women walking down Eastern Parkway or Kingston Avenue. “We’re the least famous famous people you’ve ever met,” says Wolfe, the band’s lead singer, songwriter, and pianist.
Likewise, except for the heavy hosiery, the five-year-old outfit (which is set to release a debut album of divinely inspired songs, Homeland Call Stomp, next month) differs little from the other acts with which it has shared stages — or at least venues — over the years. But there is one notable distinction: Whether downstairs at Arlene’s Grocery or on the main stage at Webster Hall, the main feature distinguishing Bulletproof Stockings from their peers is their audience — no men are allowed at their shows. If there are any, it’s by accident.
Bulletproof Stockings’ female-only crowds (mostly secular on most nights, with a handful of Hasidic women) are meant to honor kol isha, the Orthodox commandment barring men from hearing women sing. According to Jewish philosophy, women are better than men at curbing their urges, which is why the reciprocal prohibition does not apply.
The girls-only memo comes mainly by word of mouth. Fans will buy tickets online or at the door, but most have learned from social media, posters, friends, or past shows that the room will be full of women. The band can’t legally prevent men from attending, says Shusterman, “but people are amazed by the fact that we put the word out and it’s pretty much respected.”
They’ve received criticism, mostly in the form of letters and emails, for being antifeminist (and, somehow, overly feminist) as well as sexist and discriminatory against men. Shusterman recalls one
instance, during a concert upstate at Rockland Community College, when an administrator shut the show down because he thought it was oppressive — of women. Most of the complaints, according to Shusterman, come from the outside world. “Most Orthodox men are very supportive,” she says, though she adds that some consider the band too immodest.
“We’re not advocating that mixed spaces shouldn’t exist. We’re not saying there’s something wrong with men. We’re just saying there’s something innately awesome about women,” says Wolfe. “This is so punk rock. They’ve had their boys’ club for years — let us have our girl party for once.”
Bulletproof Stockings formed in 2011, when Wolfe, now 29, and Shusterman, 42, met through a mutual friend. Their musical chemistry was immediate. Shusterman, who began playing percussion at the age of sixteen, had once been the drummer for Brooklyn-based psychedelic rock band Hopewell. She started to transition to a more observant Orthodox lifestyle around 2001 when she met, and eventually married, a rabbi. In 2003 the couple moved to Los Angeles, where they had four children, now aged five through eleven. Having abandoned Hopewell and the “rock ‘n’ roll life,” Shusterman entered a period during which she couldn’t even listen to music. “It took me back to this world that I let go of for so many reasons,” she says. “It was never a comfortable tearing-away.” When her husband passed away in 2011, she and her children returned to Brooklyn to start a new life.
Wolfe, for her part, had grown up Orthodox in Chicago but never fit in with her religious community. Though for a time she’d lost interest in religion, she went to seminary in Israel after high school and married an Orthodox man. By 21, she was divorced. She moved to New York, remarried, and divorced again at 24, which heralded a new internal struggle with her faith. She returned temporarily to Chicago, where she started writing songs, then moved again to New York, finding work as a makeup artist in Borough Park.
Both Shusterman and Wolfe were looking to make music without deviating from the faith. “The idea of having a rock band with the language that I knew in this frum [religious] format was definitely a dream,” says Shusterman. Wolfe had the same vision, and within a few weeks of meeting each other, the two had recorded their first single and performed their first show, with Wolfe on vocals and keyboard, Shusterman on drums, and a friend on guitar. “The brachos [blessings from the audience] were unbelievable,” says Shusterman. “It was electrifying.” By 2013, the duo had blossomed into a quartet with the addition of Pestun, 33, on violin and Maister, 26, on cello.
Fast-forwarding to the present, the group has just returned from a national tour in support of Homeland Call Stomp. With vocals reminiscent of Fiona Apple and instrumentation that borrows from traditional blues, jazz, and rock, Bulletproof Stockings have been referred to as the “frum Yeah Yeah Yeahs” — a culmination of its members’ various influences: Led Zeppelin, the Doors, the Cure, the Pixies, Florence and the Machine, Neutral Milk Hotel, and, naturally, centuries-old Hasidic melodies.
While the album’s lyrics are based on traditional Hasidic concepts and stories from the Torah, the band boasts an audience that goes beyond the religious community. There’s a lot of curiosity, in New York especially, when it comes to Hasidim, notes Shusterman. “People don’t know what we’re all about. They see [Hasidim] as part of the scenery, but there’s so much unknown,” she says. “They start with the fascination and they hang out with us because of the music.”
And within the Hasidic community, too, Shusterman says, there’s a need for this kind of music. Excepting Israel, Brooklyn has the largest community of Orthodox Jews in the world. Without leaving religion behind — “everything that’s precious,” she says — Bulletproof Stockings provide an example for girls in the community, demonstrating that a career in music is a viable option.
“All the lyrics are about longing for Hashem [God] and wanting Moshiach [the Messiah],” Wolfe says. “In a sense there’s a longing in all of these songs, trusting that redemption is on the way.” But that means redemption on every level, she notes, above and beyond the Jewish definition.
Indeed, Wolfe stresses, secular people and non-Jews can still listen to the music and relate to the message. “My understanding of Moshiach is that [the Messiah’s arrival heralds] a natural process of the world becoming a better place; it’s inevitable. We see it through technology — people are able to connect with people on the other side of the world and spread good. And in the times of Moshiach, the power of women will come to the forefront and be revealed.”
Shusterman considers Bulletproof Stockings concerts less a religious experience and more a positive and unique outlet for women. “They’re relating to the music from a very deep place, a place that is free,” she says. “Women just dork out and can do that with full bravado when they’re not thinking about who’s going to see. They’re having this pure reaction and experience with the music.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 23, 2016