A man in fitted blue jeans peered into the record and thrift store on Brooklyn’s Franklin Avenue. He tipped his head inquiringly behind the glass door. Then, with the look of a kid being marched to bed, he walked off. Three or four men were turned away at entry that night. Surely, the ticket-taker was telling them that this was a ladies-only show. I wondered if he also was mentioning that most of the performers were Orthodox Jewish women. In any case, I did not envy him.
It was Tu B’Av, which is the closest thing the Jews have to Valentine’s Day, and there was cake. The two-piece Hasidic alt-rock girl band Bulletproof Stockings, whose name refers to the opaque hosiery worn by the observant, climbed onstage. Lead singer Perl Wolfe, 26, in a long skirt and a “Beetlejuice”-esque blouse, sat at her keyboard and toed a peddle with one wondrously high heel. This holiday, she called to the women of the crowd, celebrates “any kind of union—soul and soul, soul and God. So let’s rock out. We’re all one.” Drummer Dalia Shusterman, 39, the other half of the ensemble, and an accompanying cellist backed Wolfe as she began, in fact, to rock out. She belted, in her cavernous way, a first lyric—“Rock bottoooom is, ah, when I saaay stop”—and the song swung between soft harmonies and a jumpy klezmerish melody. The percussions went furious. A few girls started to dance in the middle of the floor; a few more sang along. All in attendance were fans.
Also performing were Rivka Eilfort, a 19-year-old whose sweet, folky tunes are more blatantly religious, and Nehedar, a student of Jewish mysticism and the evening’s singular non-Hasidic musician. “If this women’s-only scene had existed when I started out,” the latter pronounced mid-act, “I would definitely have been a part of it.”
Thwarting expectations—their own, even—creatively-inclined Orthodox Jewish women in America are taking to the performing arts with gusto. The burgeoning scene has its headquarters in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Hasidic entertainers who just a few years ago would never have sung or danced or acted in public are carving out a space for themselves. The rules of modesty that govern their daily religious lives don’t need to be at odds with appearing onstage, they’ve found; it is possible to practice their art before an audience and also to be practicing. They cover their elbows and knees and, if they are married, their heads with sheitls, or wigs. They do not schedule shows on the Sabbath. They play only for other women.
By the halachic prohibition of kol isha, Jewish men are not permitted to hear women sing. The interdict arose from several statements that appear in the Talmud, one of which likens the voice of a woman to “nakedness.” Jewish legal authorities have interpreted the proscription variously, especially, for instance, when it comes to a woman singing on a recording. Some say that a man can listen to such a recording; some say that he can’t. Some say that a man can listen to such a recording only if the female singer isn’t visible; some that a man can listen only if he has never in his life seen her. The ladies of Bulletproof Stockings consulted a rabbi before posting their music videos openly on YouTube, but have chosen not to slap disclaimers on them, as is done commonly by Orthodox women performers. For this, and their professed musical influences, they’ve come under censure by some in the community. From one relatively restrained online commenter: “I don’t believe the Rebbe [the seventh and last leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement] would approve of women making a rock band modeled after goyishe singers."
One of the purposes of a women-for-women show is to help the menfolk from contravening Jewish law. (Though most of the Hasidic women I consulted said that they would not stop mid-song if a guy wandered into a gig billed as ladies-only.“If a man walks in, it’s on him to walk out,” Rivka told me. “It’s his sin.”) But also, and perhaps more importantly, this scene is as much about creating a safe space for female listeners as it is one for female performers. At a women’s-only show, female crowd members of the faith can get up and dance, jump up and down, hora wildly, thrash about mosh-pit style. So many of the concert-goers I consulted spoke of really requiring this kind of release. Some of them weren’t even Jewish—just grateful for these opportunitiesto feel liberated in the way that you can feel liberated when you just want to shake it and the opposite sex is entirely absent.
“The perception is that this type of thing isn’t Jewish,” Dalia said. Perl shook her head, adding: “The Rebbe was so much about using what you’ve got.” We were sitting in the apartment that they share, where a full drum set takes up much of the simple living room. Perl was styling Dalia’s hair. Or rather, Perl was using a curling iron on the dark wig covering the severed foam head that she held between her knees. Neither woman had expected to meet someone with whom they’d click musically in the Hasidic community. Perl’s a twice-divorced makeup artist whose pipes have been compared to Fiona Apple’s. Dalia is a widow and mother of four who, before becoming observant, was “the only girl in an Italian Catholic boy band.” Just as soon as they were introduced, three years back, they began to play. The response has been overwhelming. “Religious girls who might have been looking for something in the secular world are instead coming to our shows,” Perl said. “The need is there.”
Two years ago, former off-Broadway actress Amy Guterson perceived that same need and founded a seminary for young women in Pittsburgh—the first of its kind, at least in the U.S.—that integrates Hasidic learning and the arts. Amy knows firsthand the frustration of being a creative person in the Yeshiva system, where there is no time or money for artistic pursuits. “Major things have been left out of their education,” she said of the 18-year-olds who enroll at Tzohar Seminary, “and they recognize the gaps or they wouldn’t be here.” Students study music, dance, painting, filmmaking, screenplay writing, theater. Freidel Shwarzberg, a recent graduate, found that she was a skilled rapper. Rivka, also an alumna, said the program “jump-started” her career.
Amy counsels the women on how they might employ their talents post-seminary. “There’s no path already tread for them,” she said. “There’s only a list of all the places they can’t go.” But increasingly, guidance is easier to give. ATARA, the Arts & Torah Association for Religious Artists, connects Orthodox women singers, dancers and actresses to each other and to performance opportunities and resources, in particular through an annual three-day conference. ATARA’s monthly newsletter trumpets auditions and concerts taking place from Cleveland and Colorado to London and Jerusalem. ATARA founder Miriam Leah Droz was trained in musical theater, but hadn’t performed in a decade when she was asked to stage an all-female dramatic production. Religious women came from New York’s five boroughs to try out for roles. “They were hungry for it,” she said. Shortly thereafter, the social networking organization was born.
“Six or seven years ago,” Miriam recalled, “if you were transitioning into the Orthodox community and you had a background in the performing arts, you had two options: give up your profession or give up being religious. There was nothing to transition into. But things have really started to change. This year alone, it just grew exponentially—there are new summer camps for the arts, Shabbat-observant theater companies, dance studios. Imagine what it will be like in 10 years.”
Begun recently by Adena Blickstein, the Jewish Women’s Talent Agency (JeWTA), recruits advanced artists and aids in their professional development. “I want to meet the needs of women who are already where they want to be in terms of their skill,” said Adena, who left the world of contemporary dance because the Friday night work and skimpy ensembles conflicted with her faith. “They can be well trained, but when they can’t make a living from their art and they can’t progress because of limited opportunities, that’s where everything crashes.” The agency is focused on partnering these performers with mentors, finding them paid gigs, booking amenable venues, building the market for ladies-only shows. As the number of Hasidic female artists climbs, so, too, does the level of skill and technique. “There couldn’t have been a JeWTA 10 years ago,” Adena told me. “The talent wasn’t even there.”
It’s there now, and the occasions to showcase it are multiplying. A yearly fundraiser hosted by Lamplighters Yeshivah, a Hasidic Montessori school for boys, spotlights Chabad women in the arts. Close to 450 listeners showed to the last event and 10 or so artists took the stage, from Esther Freeman, a younger Streisand with hip-hop in her acoustic arsenal, to Shaindel Antalis, who plays, on a rhinestoned guitar, Disney-ish pop numbers for the pre-teen set, sounding something like Taylor Swift might if she were supplicating the divine and not an ex-boyfriend. Ladies Got Talent, an all-female talent show, took place in upper Manhattan in March and was followed by a women’s dance party. The Hasidic blogger Elad Nehorai will hold a women-for-women open mic night on October 9th in Crown Heights, where, he says, “the scene is ready to burst.” The next step, for initiatives like JeWTA, is to take these performances mainstream, to convince secular audiences that if they come, they won’t be compromising on quality. In other words, to prove that these aren’t novelty acts.
“Why not have a show on Broadway that’s women-only?” Adena asked, and she isn’t the first. “If it’s good enough, it’s good enough.”