By Arielle Angel for Tom Tom Magazine
Photos by Camilo Fuentealba
Full Name: Dalia G. Shusterman
Hometown: Potomac, MD
Lives in: Crown Heights (Brooklyn, NY)
Past Bands: New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, Blood N Grits, Casa Samba, Cirque de Ville, Michigan Impossible, 7 Mile Ford, Hopewell, Timo Ellis
Current Band: Bulletproof Stockings
Drum Set Up: DW PDP Maple 5 piece
Cymbals: Sabian B8 Rock HH, B8 Pro Thin 16″ Crash, B8 Plus Ride
Fav Venue: Playing Leeds, Redding and Pukkelpop festivals. Mimulo flower shop and The Clandestine Hester
Fav Food: Kosher
It’s Saturday night and I am going to see the Brooklyn-based band Bulletproof Stockings. But they aren’t hitting a Lower East Side club or a Bushwick basement. The self-described “Hasidic alt rock girl band” will soon be playing a brightly-lit dormitory rec room at Stern College for Women.
The door staff consists of two girls dressed fashionably, but modestly in long skirts and long sleeves. “You’re not from Stern,” one says to me, frowning at my jeans. I tell her I’m interviewing the band, and she nods to the bouncer, a seven-year-old with a magic marker, who draws a smiley face on my hand for re-entry.
The evening has been billed to Stern students as a night of “female empowerment through music,” and over the next couple hours, I will hear many girls—the event organizers, the student “opening acts,” and Bulletproof Stockings—preach about the importance of “using your gifts” and “inspiring other women.”
As limp as these phrases sound on their tenth utterance, this kind of encouragement is much needed. According to Jewish law, there is a mitzvah, or commandment, called Kol Isha, in which a man is not permitted to listen to the singing voice of a woman outside of his immediate family—one of many laws that go to extraordinary lengths to limit “improper conduct” between the sexes. This means that while a Hasidic musician like Matisyahu can achieve superstardom and still be within the bounds of halacha (Jewish law), it would be hugely problematic for an observant woman to attempt the same.
Bulletproof Stockings is trying to change that. A collaboration between Perl Wolfe, a keyboardist and vocalist who has been described by The New Yorker as “a less angst-ridden version of Fiona Apple,” and drummer Dalia Shusterman, who spent the late 90s/early aughts touring and recording with the indie band Hopewell, Bulletproof Stockings knows that they have crossover appeal, and they intend to push it as far as it will go. But they don’t intend to compromise their faith: their live shows are “ladies only.”
“We don’t feel limited,” Shusterman tells me after the show. “People say ‘you’re cutting out half your audience.’ So we can only reach 3 billion people instead of 6 billion? Whatever.”
According to halacha, the women are not prohibited from performing; it is the men who are prohibited from listening. Therefore, Shusterman says, it’s not for them to worry about men accessing their music indirectly or on the internet.
“We’re not focused on that,” Shusterman says. “We’re focused on creating a space for women to be free with their creativity, without having to worry about any projections or innuendos. And a lot of women, Jewish and non-Jewish, are appreciating that.”
Listening to Shusterman talk passionately about the value of an all-women space, it’s clear why feminists have long been flummoxed by Orthodox Judaism. On the one hand, here are confident, creative, ambitious women talking about a space free from the impositions of the male gaze. On the other, the separation itself is externally imposed, and tends to limit female engagement in much of public life.
The Stern student tapped to kick off the evening with a D’var Torah, or a bit of Jewish learning, seems to confirm the worst. During her cringe-worthy ramble, she says she used to wonder what was so wrong with women becoming rabbis, but now she knows women don’t have to be “equal.” They have a “greater gift.” They are the “backbone,” the person behind every great rabbi.
I’m charmed, however, when she’s followed up by three all-girl acts in a row, an acapella group and two singer-songwriter types. Though the quality is varied, I can’t remember the last time I saw an all-female line-up in the heavily male-centric music scene. And when these girls sing about “Him,” they aren’t singing about guys, but about a deeply felt spirituality all their own. It’s refreshing.
The band arrives late, wearing red lipstick, hand-beaded jackets and long vintage dresses, and affectionately fixing each other’s sheitels, the wigs Orthodox women wear for modesty.
Wolf and Shusterman are joined onstage by their new upright bassist Elisheva Maister. They begin with a song off their EP called “Easy Pray.” It’s immediately clear that they are not just a novelty act—Bulletproof Stockings rocks. The music is catchy and accessible, but not canned, and in the next few days, I will find myself humming the songs on train platforms. Though the band insists that the lyrics have a spiritual message, they are completely unthreatening to the secular listener. Wolfe is a compelling frontwoman, with a voice in turns sultry and strong. For her part, Shusterman looks seasoned and natural behind her drum set, and I’m enjoying the cognitive dissonance around her being simultaneously a Hasidic mother of four and a member of a buzzworthy indie band.
So, do the girls in the audience look “freer”? Sort of. They’re having fun, but even without boys, the hierarchies of their own social structure still exist, and they all seem to be watching each other. It helps when, about halfway through the set, someone mercifully shuts off the lights.
“This past Shabbos was Shabbos Shira,” Wolfe tells the audience between songs, referring to the Torah portion read and studied in the previous week. She reminds the girls how the women led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt with singing and tambourines, segueing into the “use your gifts” message of the evening.
It’s no surprise that BPS routinely takes an inspirational tack. They are members of Chabad-Lubavitch, an outreach-driven sect of Hasidic Judaism led by the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson—a group that has been extremely successful at attracting secular Jews to greater observance through their joyful, non-judgmental approach. Wolfe was raised by two such Chabad ba’al teshuvas, or “returnees to the faith,” and Shusterman went from a Modern Orthodox upbringing to Hasidic life. Both women dabbled in non-observant lifestyles.
“It was a different Crown Heights ten years ago,” Shusterman says, referring to the Brooklyn neighborhood that is the movement’s center. She describes a time period in which a lot of creative kids were “frying out,” or leaving the religious community for the outside world, because they didn’t think they could access creative outlets. “Now people are really owning their voices, and finding ways to do it within the context of halacha.”
Women in the community are hungry for this, she tells me, and recently there have been more and more all-female events popping up.
I ask Shusterman if she thinks that the influx of ba’al teshuvas is partly responsible for the recent renaissance. She stops short of endorsing my theory, but does acknowledge that ba’al teshuvas have definitely brought some “new life.” “People welcome it. We’re learning from each other.”
BPS alternates original music with Hasidic niggunim, and other Jewish music. While it’s interesting to hear a modernized version of a traditional song like “Ashreinu,” I must admit, I much prefer the BPS originals. Then again, I may not be the target audience; the Stern girls don’t miss a beat.
It’s “Frigid City,” though, that has them going wild. This tune is BPS’s banger, and they know it—complete with an acapella breakdown in which Shusterman is up on her feet, knocking her sticks together in veritable rock star fashion. At this point, with the audience jumping up and down ecstatically, it isn’t difficult to believe in Bulletproof Stocking’s women-only vision.
It seems worth pointing out that neither of the core members of BPS are married—Wolfe is a divorcee and Shusterman is a widow. In a community where many women’s identities center around their role as wives, it’s hard not to find redemptive messages in the very existence of this band and what they are trying to do.
For Shusterman, who thought that her music days were behind her when she began building her family in the Hasidic community almost a decade ago, this new development seems like a dream.
“It’s like reliving a really magical time in my life, but without the yucky stuff. It can really just be about the music.”