December 11, 2018

‘Bulletproof Stockings’: Chasidic women rock

They keep kosher. They’re Chasidic. And they rock. 

Perl Wolfe and Dalia Shusterman, two observant women from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, formed the alternative rock band Bulletproof Stockings in 2011 and are being featured Jan. 20 as part of a 9 p.m. episode from the Oxygen Network’s four-part TV series “Living Different.” 

The group — which only performs live before female audiences and whose name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the opaque stockings worn by some Chasidic sects — takes some inspiration from the Torah, while combining, according to some, the folk-pop sound of Aimee Mann with the mature, edgy vocals of Fiona Apple.

Wolfe (lead vocals, piano) comes from a Chabad-Lubavitch family in Chicago and was classically trained in piano from the time she was 6. She said she has loved music in general all her life, including rock, even though most Chasidic families don’t allow secular music in their homes.

“In my home, it was a little different,” Wolfe said. “My parents both grew up secular, and my mother is a convert. My dad is a ba’al teshuvah — he became religious much later in life. And they’re both musical. Everyone in my family is musical, so I definitely was exposed to a lot more secular music than average.” 

Wolfe, 28, started writing songs after her second divorce. 

“I guess HaShem was just revealing to me through the songs that I have a mission here, and I have to figure out what it is,” she said. “It was a really awesome, cathartic and deep experience for me, because it helped me simultaneously get through a lot of the struggle I was going through with the divorce. And it also helped me figure out that I did want to be a Chasid, because at the time I was struggling religiously as well. 

“When I stopped to look at the music that I had written, it was clear through the lyrics that my heart and soul are absolutely right here in Torah and in Judaism, and that, ultimately, even though it was hard for me to do the action of it, to keep Shabbos and to keep kosher at the time, I knew that that’s where I would end up.”

She relocated to Crown Heights and told someone she met that she wanted to start a band and was looking for musicians. She was put in touch with Shusterman, a drummer with a much more secular background.

Shusterman, 41, was raised in a Modern Orthodox family, left home at 16, went hitchhiking, attended college, spent several years playing all kinds of music — from Brazilian to Afro-Cuban — and toured the world with the rock group Hopewell. Once back in New York, she was introduced to a Chasidic man, whom she married in 2003. They moved to L.A., where she had four boys, became steeped in Chasidic tradition, and had nothing to do with music for years.

“But my husband was amazing. He bought me a drum set for my birthday, because I had left everything on the East Coast,” Shusterman recalled. “[He said], ‘You need to be playing. You are a drummer — you need to be playing.’ And he was a musician also, so we started playing a little bit with his songs, and we were playing at Chabad houses here and there.

“People were always suggesting that I should start a women’s band,” she added, “but there were no women around who were playing the same kind of music, who were speaking anything close to the language I was speaking, musically. So it never really happened.”

After the death of Shusterman’s husband in 2011, she moved to Crown Heights, where she was brought together with Wolfe, and they started their band. Although they perform exclusively for women, Wolfe said it is not because of the law of kol isha, which holds that Jewish men should not listen to a woman singing.

“The reason that we’re performing for women only is because we realized that having a space for women is a really empowering and exciting thing for women,” she explained. “And it’s something that’s not done, not in the secular world, not in the society at large. In the Chasidic community that’s very much commonplace.”

She continued: “Whether you’re religious or secular, or totally unaffiliated, wouldn’t it be cool to have a party together where we just rock out as women? And it doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is or what your background is if we’re just a bunch of women hanging out and connecting on our soul level through song. I think that’s something that’s really powerful.” 

Shusterman said their venues are places where women can be women in whatever way is meaningful to them. “There are no men putting them in a box. 

“It’s inspiring in a different way. You really get to access parts of you that we don’t necessarily tap into when we’re trying to put on whatever face we do out there in the world.”

The name of the band, Bulletproof Stockings, reflects a number of aspects at play, according to Wolfe.

“There’s the juxtaposition of the hard and the soft, and the dark and the light,” she said. “Bulletproof is super-strong and invincible, and stockings are sheer and feminine, but they’re also vulnerable. They tear very easily. And I think living as a Chasid is all about balance and trying to live a balanced life, and reveal the light and the joy and positivity within everything, even if it’s covered by darkness.”

Shusterman, the band’s drummer, helps write some of the lyrics for the songs they perform and helps with the arrangements, but said most of the melodies and lyrics are provided by Wolfe, who described them as being inspired by Torah and Chasidic teaching.

“I feel that’s a message that comes through in every song,” Wolf said. “Even if some of the music sounds like hard-core and edgy rock, in reality, if you listen to the lyrics or read the lyrics, there’s a positive message of hope or looking toward a brighter future in every song.”