Dalia G. Shusterman, wearing bright red lipstick and a cropped jean jacket, and Perl Wolfe, in a leopard print top, look the part of alternative rock musicians. They talk about “wailing and rocking out” and list influences like Radiohead, the White Stripes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction.
The only tip-off that these young women are not your average rockers are their sheitls, or wigs. Shusterman and Wolfe, Lubavitcher Hasidim living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, are the Bulletproof Stockings – the first-ever Hasidic alt-rock girl band.
By day, Shusterman, in her mid-30s, is a part-time graphic designer and recently widowed mother of four young boys between the ages of two and eight. Wolfe, a 26-year-old divorcée, is a makeup artist who manages a cosmetics store in Boro Park that caters mainly to Hasidic women. By night, the two play gigs at various New York venues and work on writing and recording their first album, the follow-up to the release earlier this year of their four-track EP “Down to the Top.”
The band’s name hints that the musicians intend to defy stereotypes: “Bulletproof stockings” is a tongue-in cheek reference to the thick, opaque leg-wear traditionally worn by Hasidic women.
Because of the rabbinic prohibition of kol isha, which bars men from hearing women sing, only women are admitted to their live performances. Men who want to listen to Shusterman on drums and to Wolfe’s keyboard and soulful voice must make do with their MP3s and online videos.
The two see no contradiction in the fact that men are prohibited from coming to hear them play, but can easily hear them online.
“The deal is that it’s not a women’s mitzvah not to play,” explained Shusterman, using a term for a religious commandment. Her speech, in English, is riddled with Hebrew and Yiddish terms. “It’s a man’s mitzvah not to listen. Anyone who knows halacha [Jewish law] will tell you this. There are plenty of frum [religious] women putting their music out, and YouTube and Amazon and iTunes are the media for getting it out there. And especially for parnasa [income], it’s not even a question.”
“We could sing in the middle of the street and all the men would have to leave. But for the sake of ahavat yisrael [love of fellow Jews], we don’t make issues for people,” Wolfe said.
“Where we draw our line is who we will perform live for,” Shusterman said. “We are not going to put men in a position where they have to listen to us.”
But they are more interested in the flip side of the gender equation. “We are creating a forum where women can freely express themselves without having the male input and presence,” Shusterman said.
“We believe there is a beauty in keeping things separate,” explained Wolfe. “We want to create this space for women to sing and dance and jump up and down and mosh pit…we need it. Girls need it.” Otherwise, when men and women attend concerts by male singers, “the women just sit there. It’s the men who get to have a good time and rock out,” she said.
They also want to inspire other observant Jewish girls and women to play music. “We really want girls to pick up their instruments and start getting into it. There’s a weird misconception that it’s not Jewish to do this kind of thing,” said Wolfe.
The band is looking to expand to include a guitarist, bassist and string musician. Candidates must be women. “It would be easier if they were Jewish, but it’s not necessary,” Wolfe said.
The two musicians believe it was bashert – predestined — that they found each other.
Shusterman grew up Modern Orthodox in Potomac, Maryland. She played piano as a little girl, but it was shortly after she turned 16 that she discovered her natural affinity for percussion. At a New Year’s party she went onstage and used the drums while the band was on a break between sets.
“I started shaking a tambourine, and I just worked my way up to bongos and the congas. And the next thing I knew, I looked up and the whole room of people was dancing to my playing,” she recalled. “It was a total revelation for me.”
Soon, Shusterman was busking with other teen musicians on the streets of D.C. While still 16, she hitchhiked across the country: “I had lots of adventures and I eventually landed up in New Orleans, where I was playing a lot of jazz music. People heard me playing on the street and just pulled me up on to their stages.”
Her professional career as an indie musician took off when, as an undergraduate studying philosophy and literature at SUNY Purchase, a friend roped her into playing drums to open for the band Boss Hog. That led to several years of recording and international touring with another indie band, Hopewell.
But Shusterman left the indie rock scene when Hasidic Judaism started to feel like a better spiritual fit than life on the road. “As much as I totally loved it, I had one foot off the tour bus,” she said. “It’s a very spiritual experience when you’re performing. There were these massive crowds and it was amazing, but then when you walk off stage and you’re facing life.”
She discovered Chabad Lubavitch, the Hasidic outreach group, in September 2001 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, when someone handed her a flyer for a Sukkot event in Crown Heights. “That night was my first real Chabad experience, and I also met my future husband that night,” she recalled. “I stopped doing the band thing that fall and ended up marrying a rabbi.”
Shusterman and her husband, who was also a music lover, moved to Los Angeles and had four boys. The family’s life was thrown into turmoil by her husband’s untimely death last spring.
Coincidentally, that was the same time that Wolfe, who had moved from Chicago to Crown Heights after her divorce in 2008, suddenly found herself writing music. She had studied classical piano since age six, but had never written music, lyrics or poetry before.
Wolfe, who was raised in a Chabad family in Chicago, never felt she completely fit in. As a teen she was rebellious and, although she remained within the Jewish community, did not socialize with girls from her religious school.
Uniquely, Wolfe’s parents — neither of whom had grown up Orthodox — exposed her to musicians like The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones. She eventually found her way to Led Zed Zeppelin, The Doors, and punk rock. Wolfe’s father played jazz on the piano, leading her to legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Etta James.
For a time, Wolfe drifted away from observance, but she moved back toward it when she attended a religious seminary in Israel after high school, got married, and started her studies in psychology at Northwestern University. Following her divorce, Wolfe, returning to her roots, felt the pull of the Lubavitch community and made her way to Crown Heights.
Bulletproof Stockings’ music has been compared to that of Adele, Nina Simone, Fiona Apple and Florence and the Machine, but Wolfe insists she is not trying to sound like anyone but herself when she writes and sings her compositions — all of which are inspired by Torah and by Lubavitch’s version of Hasidic faith.
“I’m trying to channel my soul,” she said. “When I’m recording, I’m thinking, ‘Hashem, give me the right words, the right intention, so that it comes out the right way to inspire me and the people who will hear me.’”
“I didn’t expect to find someone that I would connect with musically,” Wolfe said of her encounter with Shusterman last year through a mutual acquaintance. Shusterman, for her part, never thought she would play her drums again.
But does Shusterman, who got off the tour bus long ago, really want to get back on?
“It’s true that I never thought I’d go back,” she said, hugging her bandmate. “This is the only way I would do it.”