To play in a touring rock band while remaining a devout, observant Hasidic Jew is not without complication. The Torah contains 613 commandments called mitzvoth. Some of its individual mitzvah are prescriptive, some are prohibitive, some are directed at men, some at women. Not playing Friday night shows in order to observe the Sabbath is one thing, but the mitzvah decreeing that Jewish men should not listen to the singing voice of women who don’t belong to their immediate family poses a more fundamental challenge for an all-female band, especially. The very existence of Crown Heights’ Bulletproof Stockings might suggest that its members are using rock and roll to rebel, to break the rules like many rockers before them. But that’s not the case at all. Instead, they’ve embraced orthodoxy and thrived performing for female-only audiences, barring men from attendance.
It’s not quite right to say that the band’s policy is strictly determined by the letter of religious law. “We’re coming from a community where people don’t go to live performances of women. We want to be respectful of that,” Perl Wolfe explains, “but it’s not really about the guys. It’s not our job to cater to men. Every Rabbi we’ve spoken to is like, ‘Guys, let me make it really clear for you. You can literally stand on the street and sing if you wanted to. I’m not advising you do that, but it’s not your mitzvah.’ “ And it hasn’t even capped the fandom of devout Jewish dudes at zero. “We have male fans who have never listened, will never listen to the music, but they support what we do,” she says.
Since they started in 2011, the band’s core has been singer and songwriter Wolfe and drummer Dalia Shusterman. While Shusterman was a veteran performer, having toured and recorded for years with the psychedelic rock band Hopewell, Wolfe was a novice who’d just begun writing. She took another kind of leap of faith, booking her first gig without a backing band and lucking out by finding Shusterman, who had returned to Hasidism, through mutual contacts in their community. While it does differ drastically from traditional Jewish music, the band isn’t quite punk rock. They make music that’s more along the lines of tuneful 90s alt-rock they say is inspired by bands like Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Led Zeppelin, and the Flaming Lips. (Still, there’s no way begrudge the NY Post for a misleading headline as entertaining as “Hasid Vicious”.)
Wolfe’s songs are “formed through the lens of Torah and Hasidis,” she says. “Philosophically, being a Hasid, at least from the Chabad perspective, is all about living in this world and mixing the two together. It’s what I really liked about the name. ‘Bulletproof Stockings’ is this jokey term for Hasidic women, because their stockings are so thick they’re bulletproof. It’s this juxtaposition of two opposites, ‘bulletproof’ and stockings which are so thin and rip in a second.”
“It’s two ways of showing strength,” says Shusterman. “One is invincible and one is the ability to be vulnerable.”
“Being a Hasid is like bringing the two together,” adds Wolfe. “Hasidim seems very insular from the outside world. People don’t imagine that Hasidim are real, loving, thriving people.”
She has a point. In Brooklyn-based media, the Hasidic community has sometimes been held up as a conservative counterpoint to the young libertines who make up the borough’s arts scene. But Wolfe notes that a DIY ethos is something both groups have very much in common. “There’s really been a renaissance happening, especially in the Hasidic community in Crown Heights,” she says. “Every one of our friends has their own startup business—yoga studio, flower shop, makeup business, whatever.”
Their own story resembles the arc of many other determined underdogs in Brooklyn music. “There weren’t spaces at the time that we started. We were just renting vintage clothing store sections, or renting a schul or someone’s house, and then getting the bartender and getting the sound guy, getting everything set up. Now I think things are starting to move. There are a couple spaces now in Crown Heights, like The Creative Soul, where they have open mics and art galleries. People are making events,” says Wolfe. The band has started tracking their first full-length album at Williamsburg’s Strange Weather Recording, and have embraced another modern DIY tool, Kickstarter, to get it across the finish line.
Local club owners, at first skeptical to be eliminating 50 percent of all possible ticket buyers, are now seeing the band sell out rooms without them. (Though comfortable in clubs and bars, their next show is this Sunday at the Ohab Zedek synagogue on the Upper West Side.) Media attention given to their unique background has also made them a sought after act in far-flung locales. “Gibraltar, Australia, Canada,” says Wolfe. “All over the states—Florida, California—someone just asked us to go to the Southwest last week.” But a few common routes for a band to grow a fan base seem specifically tricky for them. They can’t easily take a support spot on the tour of a bigger artist who plays to mixed crowds. And what about joining the lineup of an eclectic summer festival, an increasingly dominant sector of the live music business? They are imagining the possibilities. “Going to Lollapalooza, there was a separate tent just for Perry Ferrell to DJ!” says Shusterman. “We’re picturing that kind of thing happening, a separate space with all female acts, a women’s hour.” They’ll perform at our own Northside Festival this summer, as a start.
In practice, Bulletproof Stockings’ female-only crowds achieve something close to the “girls to the front” ethos of Kathleen Hanna and the Riot Grrl movement. Like Hanna, Bulletproof Stockings want to ensure a safe space for women to enjoy rock music made for and by them. Though both women admire Hanna’s music, Wolfe is careful not to draw too close a comparison. “It was about female empowerment but there was something kind of negative, it felt, towards the men,” she says. “It might seem that way with us, but I actually feel like it’s the opposite. We’re not going to be screaming on stage for guys to get out of the way. There’s no issue. Guys are cool, but this is a women’s space. From the get go, it’s already just a different kind of atmosphere. It’s a very positive thing.” And she says their increasing visibility in the Crown Heights arts scene has allowed them to support other female artists taking their first steps to expression. “We’ve brought a lot of women out on stage for their first time.”
Still, the band remains a product of a conservative community in which gender roles are rigidly assigned. Wolfe and Shusterman’s own views on gender seem based in celebrating differences rather than obliterating them. “People want to blur the lines, and I think it’s well-meaning,” says Wolfe. “People don’t like the idea of being a woman or being a man. It’s like everything has to be neutral or it’s not OK. If you want to be neutral, so be neutral, but if I want to express my femininity or you feel like you want to express your masculinity we shouldn’t be butting heads. It should be OK.”