From the Crown Heights neighborhood in central Brooklyn, known for its large Chasidic community, comes a fresh-sounding, repeat-button-worthy all-women rock band: Bulletproof Stockings. Comprised of Perl Wolfe, Dalia Shusterman, Elisheva Maister and Dana Pestun—all Chasidic Jews—Bulletproof Stockings mixes heavy vocals with light melodies, their music carrying echoes of Chasidic melodies and incorporating drums, piano and the occasional a cappella section. Wolfe, the lead singer, does regular vocal jumps in her chest voice, reminiscent of Regina Spektor’s sound—with a bit more chutzpah and a stronger beat. Their lyrics touch on themes of city life, restlessness and a continual journey—tapping into the visual and literary motif of the “wandering Jew,” a subject they approach through contemporary language and metaphors. In “Vagabond’s Wagon,” the chorus looks forward while focusing on the past:
Down the rabbit hole to a wall of photographs
Echoing times passed
I knew it from the first drop-kick I felt in the courtyard
Of the town I grew up in
This contemporary take (both thematically and musically) on Jewish tradition extends to all facets of the band. Based on Chasidic traditions, the group chooses to perform only to women. Not unlike the womyn’s music festivals of the ’70s, Bulletproof Stockings aims to create a space for women to rock with fellow women. This decision has drawn criticism of the band and the Chasidic community at large, but the women refuse to compromise their religious beliefs.
Even the band’s name stems from Chasidic observances, referring to the opaque stockings that Chasidic women wear. According to Shusterman—the band’s drummer and vocalist—people outside of the community refer to the stockings as “bulletproof,” a term the band embraced. After all, bulletproof also refers to “strength and toughness, and stockings are very feminine and sheer, so it’s also just kind of putting those two together and making it work,” says Shusterman.
While they perform mainly in New York, the band hopes to tour on the U.S. West Coast this spring. If you can’t see them in person, Bulletproof Stockings deserves a listen and a hefty mazel tov. The Ms. Blog chatted with the group about their ideals, why they value a women-only space, and their plans for the upcoming year.
Why do you perform to only women?
In Chasidic communities, we have what is called a “farbrengen,” a Chasidic gathering, where we share words of Torah, sing niggunim (Chasidic melodies), make a l’chaim and encourage and strengthen each other in our goals and growth. A spiritual morale booster. Women have farbrengens with women, men with men. Not because men or women are better or worse than one another, nor because we fear that we cannot control our earthly desires, but because there is something so powerful about connecting to one on another on the utmost essential level. The farbrengen is a prime example of a positive outlet for men and women to unplug, and connect soul-to-soul through song.
So it doesn’t have to do with Kol Isha (PDF)—the Jewish custom that forbids a man to listen to singing by a woman outside of his immediate family?
As far as Kol Isha, this mitzvah [commandment] is entirely incumbent upon the man to abide by or not, and has literally nothing to do with whether or not a woman can sing and perform in public. There is no Jewish law that states that a woman cannot sing publicly. So as far as Jewish Law is concerned, we’d be in the clear to go out and perform before a mixed audience. We are choosing not to because we are getting a real response from women, all over the world, and of many different backgrounds, saying that they appreciate this space. As long as the women want this, we will be there to oblige.
Do people interpret your decision as gender oppression?
A common misconception about what it is that we’re trying to do with BPS is that we perform before all-women audiences either because we despise men, are oppressed by them or both. Nothing could be further from the truth. We appreciate a women-for-women space because we appreciate men and women equally. We believe that men and women should have the right to choose for themselves with whom, and when, they want to spend time with someone, be they man or woman. Are we suggesting that a woman can only “be herself” and feel “empowered” in a ladies-only environment? No. Is it for us to tell any woman what makes her feel liberated and free? Of course not!
What’s been the general response from the Chasidic community and the broader Jewish community?
The response has been overwhelmingly supportive. There are women coming out of the woodwork, telling us that seeing what BPS is accomplishing is so inspiring to them. Women who never before believed that a music career is a financially viable option for an Orthodox Jewish woman, some of whom “gave up” music years ago, are now picking up their instruments and playing. We have young girls writing to us that they want to be musicians when they grow up, sharing their musical talents with us via Facebook messages, even asking us to give them professional feedback. It’s very special. We feel so blessed to be given such an opportunity to help blaze the path for more and more women to use their talents.
What’s on the horizon for Bulletproof Stockings?
Our main focus right now is playing more frequently and getting our first full-length album out. We feel incredibly blessed to be receiving all of this media attention, and we recognize that while it is totally awesome, the public still hasn’t fully heard what we have to offer. People are excited by the idea of Chasidic women rockers and the women-only space, but ultimately we’re musicians. Getting our art out there is how we connect to our fans and is therefore our top priority.
Photo courtesy of Bulletproof Stockings.