When closing your eyes while listening to the music of girl band Bulletproof Stockings, images of sultry, sexy indie rockers like Liz Phair or Cat Power quickly come to mind. It can be quite a surprise, then, to see a group of four ultra-Orthodox Jewish women covered from head to toe.
This first (and so far only) quartet of Hasidic alt-rockers has unsurprisingly attracted a lot of attention for this incongruity — and also because their music is really hot.
When The Times of Israel first came across the groundbreaking group back in late 2012, it was only about a year after it had burst onto the scene out of Crown Heights, Brooklyn (headquarters of the world’s Chabad-Lubavitch community). But founding band members Perl Wolfe and Dalia G. Shusterman quickly found themselves fielding interview requests not only from Jewish media, but also from prominent mainstream news outlets like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, CBS and ABC.
Everybody wanted to get to know these God-fearing rockers who were pairing bright lipstick and leopard-print tops with modest long skirts.
In article after article, the women shared their unusual backstory, explained their band’s name (it’s a comedic nod to the thick, opaque nylons worn by Hasidic women), and said they aimed to bust stereotypes about religious Jewish females. When asked why they only perform for female audiences, they cited the Jewish legal term kol isha, the prohibition on men hearing women’s singing voices.
And for a while, Bulletproof Stockings didn’t mind all this curiosity about their lifestyle. But now, with the band’s first album set to be released at the end of January, its members want the spotlight to shift from their beautifully coiffed sheitels (wigs) to their musical accomplishments.
Wolfe (lead vocals/piano) and Shusterman (vocals/drums) were joined in the last couple of years by cellist Elisheva Maister and violinist Dana Pestun. Maister, 27, has a day job working in a hospital’s microbiology lab. Pestun, 33, grew up in Russia and Israel and supports herself as a music teacher.
The foursome recently completed a 10-city bi-coastal tour to promote their debut album, “Homeland Call Stomp.”
‘All our lyrics are about Torah and Hasidus. But they are intentionally written in a way that is open to interpretation. That makes the songs more accessible’
On the back of an EP they put out in 2012 and the publicity generated since, the Chabad-Lubavitch women were able to raise in excess of their $36,000 goal in a Kickstarter campaign for the full-length record.
“The backing we got through the Kickstarter campaign was really broad-based. In fact, among our biggest supporters was a non-Jewish couple from St. Louis. They’re apparently fans of Chabad, and also of Talyor Swift,” said Shusterman, 42.
While the band’s music does not bring pop diva Taylor Swift to mind, it is reminiscent of other artists. One music critic described the band’s sound as “jet-fueled Dead Weather meets the delicate intricacies of Fiona Apple.”
Wolfe, who most of the songs on the album (save for the Hebrew Hasidic niggun “Tzama L’cha Nafshi” and “Mind Clear”), is flattered by the comparisons, but not inclined to pigeonhole the band’s sound.
“Our music has many influences, from rock to blues to jazz to classical,” she said.
The Hasidic musical undertones are also obvious, both implicitly and explicitly, as in several cases where snippets of melodies of specific prayers make their way into songs.
And while Wolfe, 29, may sound like Fiona Apple, she sings about the Torah and precepts of Hasidic Judaism.
“All our lyrics are about Torah and Hasidus. But they are intentionally written in a way that is open to interpretation. That makes the songs more accessible,” she explained.
The women are fully aware of questions from all quarters about their policy of only playing live for women, while concurrently trying to achieve broad exposure through the sale of their music and the posting of their videos on social media.
‘The Chabad authorities we have checked with all say what we are doing is a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name)’
And although they publicize their shows as women-only, they know it is illegal for them to turn away any man that shows up for a performance.
“On our recent tour, there were a few men who straggled in,” admitted Wolfe.
The women just kept on playing.
On the other hand, some observant Jews who follow the religious precept of kol isha question the public profile and wide reach that the band desires.
“The Chabad authorities we have checked with all say what we are doing is a kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name],” said Shusterman.
“We know that in other Hasidic communities, what we are doing wouldn’t fly, and also that there are women in our own community who wouldn’t be doing what we are doing,” she admitted.
The band members are, indeed, atypical Hasidic women: Shusterman is a widow with four children, Wolfe is a divorcee twice over and Pestun is the divorced mother of a young son. Maister is the only married member of the group.
“We don’t fit in the box. We’re definitely not poster children,” said Wolfe, who, with Shusterman, manages the band while styling wigs and doing professional make-up for clients on the side.
But Shusterman is certain that her late husband, who died suddenly at a young age, would have been Bulletproof Stockings’ biggest fan.
“It was he who bought me my drum set… It was with him that I, as a fledgling chossid trying to marry my rock past with my new way of life, came up with the name Bulletproof Stockings 10 years ago as the name for my dream women-for-women frum rock band,” said Shusterman.
‘Anyone who wants to empower women is a feminist. So I guess in that way I am a feminist’
None of the women are quick to call themselves feminists, although Maister said she believes women should able to make personal choices. Shusterman, claiming to be apolitical, said she tries to avoid labels. Only Wolfe ventured to actually consider the term in relation to herself.
“Anyone who wants to empower women is a feminist. So I guess in that way I am a feminist,” she offered.
The women hope to book more (women-only) gigs once “Homeland Call Stomp” is out. And while they want their songs to speak for themselves, they are savvy enough to cash in on the continual buzz generated by the “Hasidic alt-rock girls band” label.
“We know people are coming for the novelty, but we hope they stay for the music,” Wolfe said.
Several tracks from the new album can be streamed for free on Soundcloud.