The Sisterhood of Bulletproof Stockings: It’s Ladies’ Night for Hasidic Rockers
Don’t be fooled by the modest clothing and long streaming curls, you won’t hear ‘Hava Nagila’ here. It’s Ladies’ Night every night for these Indigo Girls-like Hasidic rockers.
When you take a rock duo out to lunch, you prepare for an array of histrionic, diva-esque demands: Cristal or Jameson or gluten-free, free-range everything, at least. But Bulletproof Stockings’ Perl Wolfe and Dalia Shusterman’s only dietary concern is deciding which blessing to say over their meal.
“What’s the bracha for farro?” Perl asks her bandmate Dalia as she looks it up on her iPhone.
It’s one of the many charmingly hip-meets-Hasid moments over our lunch at Basil Pizza and Wine Bar in Crown Heights, a chic eatery with a dazzling array of wines on display in sleek see-through walls. The many men with yarmulkes, some with pais (curls), and women with the hair covered in scarves or garbed in sheitels (wigs) is the only difference between any other over-priced restaurant in this gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood.
Perl and Dalia themselves are wearing beautiful sheitels of long streaming curls. Although they are dressed modestly and clothed neck to ankle, there is just the slightest rocker edge, with Perl in stripes and a pair of red Keds and Dalia in a brightly patterned top over her black long-sleeved shirt. With Perl in particular, a former makeup artist, there is a sultriness to her metallic eye shadow and her painted lips.
For Bulletproof Stockings, who have headlined the famed Arlene’s Grocery on New York’s Lower East Side, the blend of the religious and the secular is fitting. Their music isn’t preachy. There’s hippie universality to their spirituality and sisterhood that makes them sound more like the Indigo Girls than Creed. Their soulful alternative rock has echoes of Florence and the Machine and The Black Keys. The husky mournfulness in songs like “Easy Pray” sound like a future Adele cover.
Though unlike these artists, Bulletproof Stockings exclusively performs for ladies-only audiences. Yet, the two women never see a dichotomy between their musical careers and their religious lifestyles—they are seamlessly inseparable.
It was the Hasidic community of Brooklyn—and the way they tell it, the Divine himself—that brought the two women together, despite their different ages and stages of life. Around Passover 2011, Dalia, who is now 40, had just lost her husband and was suddenly a single widow with four songs. At that same time, Perl, now 27, was going through her second divorce.
For the 10 previous years, Dalia had become deeply involved in the Hasidic community and left behind a successful stint in the secular musical world. Though Dalia was raised in a religious Jewish home, she left the fold. Prior to her marriage, she joined a psychedelic rock band, Hopewell, and toured with the band through Europe for five years. Dalia smiles and blushes a little when I ask if she did the whole “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” routine.
“I was more tame than the people around me. But as far as being Hasidic, it was definitely different,” she says. “It was really exciting and fun while it lasted,” she admits, but “there was always a part of me that wasn’t quite there, that wasn’t quite home. It gets old quickly because it’s pretty surface, that stuff. I wasn’t satisfied to live a life like that.”
Perl loved all kinds of music, including rock and roll, growing up in the Chabad community, a sect of Hasidic Judaism. “In high school, I was considered the most rebellious girl,” Perl says. “I wasn’t doing drugs or sleeping with anyone, but because I went to rock concerts or wore makeup and didn’t go to class.” For many years, she wasn’t religious until she could “explore Torah and Hasidus [Hasidic teachings] on my own terms.”
Perl admits that she struggled with religion after her 2011 divorce, but “music just started flowing out of me,” she says. Although she was passionate about music, she had never once written a song.
“Hashem [a word for God often used by observant Jews] was like ‘Here, music.’ After all those months of soul-searching, I realized I wanted to make a band specifically for women.” Though she was living with her family in Chicago at the time, she says a “lightning bolt of inspiration” drove her to New York with the desire to make an all-female band. She admits it didn’t always make sense, but “Hashem is guiding me, so I thought ‘I guess just keep my eyes open.’”
When Perl mentioned she was looking for a female drummer in the Hasidic community, a mutual friend introduced her to Dalia. “Thank God,” Perl says earnestly. “It was the opening of this channel for both of us.”
Despite the fact that the two women came together when they had committed themselves to Hasidic Judaism, they brought their experiences as outsiders with more than a few dalliances with the secular world. “It definitely colors the music we listened to,” says Dalia. “We were drawn to music from the outside, so we are able to relate to the outside world.” While Bulletproof Stockings look like they’d only rock out to “Hava Nagila,” over the course of our interview, the women express their admiration for a range of musicians, from The Cure to Lorde.
Their time outside the Hasidic community has not only shaped their music, but their approach to religion. “We already tried the outside world. “We are both the type of people who needed to figure things out,” says Perl. “We aren’t doing this rote.”
As a result, Bulletproof Stockings never hesitated to play music in the secular world when they began performing in late 2011, but they also never hesitated to set their own terms with the rock and roll community. Nearly three years later, the band’s media attention is largely by dint of the fact they’re an anomaly in the rock world as an all-Hasidic female duo—Elisheva Maister plays the cello and Dana Pestun plays the violin for the band—who only perform for all-female audiences.
When the women took the stage at Arlene’s Grocery, it was the first time that the venue barred anyone with a Y chromosome from entering. And when Bulletproof Stockings performs at The Bitter End on October 29, the no-men rule will once again be in place, and it will be in place if they make it to the Bowery Ballroom or Madison Square Garden.
The band has regularly turned down gigs that won’t accommodate their all-female audience stipulation. Dalia recalls explaining to one venue “the girl thing” was non-negotiable. “They said, ‘Get back to us when you’re ready to share your talent,’ and we said ‘Get back to us when you’re ready to have a girl party.’”
The no-men rule has led to accusations of sexism against Bulletproof Stockings. It’s admittedly hard to think the feel-good “girl party” response would hold if it were an all-male band shutting women out of performances. Still, the band maintains that their commitment to women’s-only concerts is not meant to be an affront to men.
“It’s a society where men have more stages to express themselves. We’re doing what we’re doing to open up the space without worrying about how it compares to men or how we affect men,” says Dalia. They see their concerts as a way to empower women, both musically and socially. “The world is still technically male-dominated, so it’s one space for two hours for women to have their own fun,” says Dalia.
Somewhat ironically, as common as the allegation that the women-only concerts are sexist toward men is the accusation that they are a product of the Hasidic community’s female oppression. Hasidic Judaism has a reputation for subverting and abusing women—and women have come forward with testimony to prove it. There are countless cases of women who have fled the community, frustrated with being treated like second-class citizens, or claim they were abused by spouses they had little say in choosing.
But Dalia and Perl view Hasidic Judaism with an open-mindedness that is jarring to outsiders—and likely their peers. When discussing the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a famous rabbi who led the Chabad community in Brooklyn, Perl ventures that he was “very feminist,” a description sure to raise eyebrows. She backtracks a little, saying “everything with labels is relative,” but later adds, “I think Hasidic women in general are very much feminist.”
Dalia is hesitant to use the label of feminist (making her no different from scores of other progressive female musicians). However, she sees a tie to the Hasidic community. “[Hasidic Judaism] is about using your gifts. They are for you to develop, give, and uplift the world. As far as being a woman, that means being the leader you can be, whether that’s as a mother in your household or the president of a hospital or whatever,” says Dalia. “Or all of the above,” chimes in Perl. While this may sound relatively innocuous or even antiquated to your average 21st-century alternative rock fan, Dalia and Perl speak from a community famous for women being “chained” in marriages until their husbands grant them religious divorces (get).
While Bulletproof Stockings is clearly devoted to the requirements of Hasidic Judaism, they seem equally committed to proving religion doesn’t solely define them. They are adamant that their women-only concerts are not a result of religious rules. In Orthodox Judaism, there are a number of prohibitions on what men and women can do and what they can do together, even when it comes to music.
Kol isha, which literally translates to “woman’s voice,” is a rule prohibiting men from listening to women sing. Some publications have claimed that Bulletproof Stockings hold women-only concerts in adherence with kol isha. “That’s not why we won’t open our concerts to the public,” says Perl, who notes the prohibition is on men not to listen and that women can perform for whomever they want.
But, would they do single-sex concerts if they hadn’t been part of the Hasidic community? That’s harder to answer.
“It's tough because we're coming from a place of understanding in the community, where there are women-for-women spaces and men-for-men spaces,” says Perl. Dalia, however, feels more strongly they would still keep it a men-free zone. “It’s for sisterhood to happen. Women like hanging out with other women.”
While people may have started paying attention to Bulletproof Stockings because they broke pretty much every rock and roll stereotype, they draw increasingly diverse and secular crowds. “The show at Arlene’s Grocery brought it to a new place,” says Perl. Not only did Bulletproof Stockings receive significant media attention for the performance, but the line for tickets was reportedly out the door and the show sold out. “Baruch hashem [Blessed be God],” Dalia says with a laugh. “We don't have a press person, besides God.”
Dalia jokes, but even if Bulletproof Stockings frames their single-sex concerts as serving a secular purpose, they are a deeply spiritual band. All of their songs, they say, are inspired by Torah and Hasidic philosophy, even the ones that sound a bit salacious.
I ask about the song “Easy Pray,” one of my favorites. When I listen to the lines “Forbidden passages always tempt thee/Why you succumb is my point of intrigue,” there’s a clear sexiness, and I tell them it sounds like a song about a bad boy from the past that they couldn’t quite shake.
I’m off, but maybe not by much. “If a girl hears that and that’s how she connects to it, then that’s what it means to her,” says Perl. She thinks of “Easy Pray” as “the ballad of yetzer hara (evil inclination). The evil inclination is saying in this song, ‘I’m looked at as this bad guy, but you have power, you have control.’” Though she envisioned the songs as a “conversation between the narrator and God,” she and Dalia “want to write it in a way that people can interpret it on their own level.”
While their songs are inspired by Jewish teachings, they are nowhere close to evangelical. “Christian music is often blatantly religious. We come from a spiritual place, but you can relate to it on many levels,” says Perl.
“There’s no Jewish agenda,” says Dalia. “We’re not trying to make anyone Jewish at all. We’re just having fun with our girlfriends.”
And with each other. The two women now live together, and Perl is actually very involved in rearing Dalia’s children. “We have the boys. We have the bands. Each one is so important to us,” says Dalia. “We’re on the same page. We always work everything out, and we only grow stronger the more we go through things,” says Perl.
The next stop for Bulletproof Stockings is releasing a full album. The band has just started recording and, rather ambitiously, is hoping to complete it by this winter or spring.
“God willing,” says Perl.