These Women Will Change The Way You Think

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_MG_2297Photographed by Ali Gavillet.
The morning I had brunch with Dalia Shusterman and Perl Wolfe, the front ladies of alternative rock band Bulletproof Stockings, I felt like the third coolest girl in Crown Heights. After all, I was eating poached eggs alongside the women whose group, which was formed in 2011, has recently skyrocketed in popularity. In mid-August, the Bulletproof Stockings played a sold-out show at Lower East Side mainstay Arlene’s Grocery, which will be aired on the Oxygen Network’s new reality show Living Different this spring.

The band's signature sound — energetic piano melodies paired with poetic lyrics — has been favorably compared to everyone from Regina Spektor to Radiohead. (Full disclosure: I likened them to a double helping of Fiona Apple back in a December 2012 New Yorker article.) Their Facebook reach, they tell me, has increased 9,000% in one week, a feat I assume only overnight sensations like Psy could rival. But, it’s not solely their music that is drawing attention. As members of the Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Judaism, the Bulletproof Stockings play for female audiences only, which has left many people — from feminists to MRA activists — simultaneously confused and intrigued.
_MG_2474_EditPhotographed by Ali Gavillet.
"A lot of people have the wrong idea," Wolfe, who sports enviably perfect cat-eye makeup, says. "They think we're doing it for the men. It has nothing to do with the men. It has to do with women."

She continues to explain that from the perspective of Jewish law, the group could technically perform anywhere, as the mitzvah of kol isha — refraining from listening to a woman who isn't your family member sing — is the man's responsibility, not the female performer's. While this might seem to some a miniscule distinction, in the world of Talmudic scholarship, such subtleties can be decisive.

"We can play wherever we want," she asserts, "but women need a space to rock out. So, we're trying to create that. It's about sisterhood."

The story of Shusterman and Wolfe's sororal bond is so rife with kismet it’s hard not to see the divine hand in play. Forty-year-old Shusterman grew up in a modern Orthodox family in Maryland, where she took piano lessons and explored the Washington D.C. music scene.

"I wasn't necessarily into the Fugazi sound, but that’s what I was around," Shusterman explains. "I was going to those shows because my friends were going to those shows, but my favorite band around that time was Jane's Addiction."

She started touring with a rock group called Hopewell while in college at SUNY Purchase, but began to feel that the lifestyle didn’t jive with her burgeoning religious observance. On a whim, she visited Crown Heights for Sukkot, where she met her future husband, who was just one test away from rabbinical ordination. After the two married, they moved to Los Angeles and had four boys. Shusterman thought her performing days were over, but when her husband passed away in the spring of 2011, she found herself adrift. She moved with her four young sons back to New York, where she met Wolfe, who was 25 at the time.
_MG_3258Photographed by Ali Gavillet.
Wolfe grew up Lubavitch in Chicago, and as a young girl was relatively sheltered from secular influences compared to Shusterman.

"I listened to Jewish pop music because that's what we were allowed to in the car," she recalls.

She was also exposed to nigunnim, the often repetitive, sometimes wordless traditional Hasidic melodies that now make their way into Bulletproof Stockings shows on the regular.

During her adolescence, Wolfe branched out and began to listen to non-Jewish music, eventually finding her way to the same bands that had influenced Shusterman, particularly Nirvana and the Flaming Lips. Because of Wolfe's religious background, she never considered music a viable vocation, but in the aftermath of a divorce, she found solace in spontaneously writing melodies. Within a week, she had a full EP on her hands and no idea what to do with it. She spent time contemplating her path before coming to a conclusion: She should move to Crown Heights, where the Lubavitch movement is headquartered, and start a band of women that would play specifically for women. Not long after she relocated, she met Dalia, and Bulletproof Stockings was born.

Though they’ve been performing — and receiving media attention — pretty steadily since their genesis, the show at Arlene's Grocery was the event that put them firmly on the map. When I ask them how they thought the concert went, their faces light up.

"It was better than we could have imagined," Wolfe says.
_MG_3073Photographed by Ali Gavillet.
"We saw all these TV vans, these news channel vans, and they waited on the sidewalk during the whole show because they weren't allowed to film inside, waiting hours after the show just to get a story," Shusterman marvels.

Both women are ecstatic to be in the spotlight, but are understandably wary about becoming better known for the issues they inadvertently raise, rather than the merit of their work.

"I really hope that all this stuff doesn't overshadow the fact that we're musicians," Shusterman says. If they keep working at the pace they are, it seems unlikely that will happen: They're currently writing and recording new songs, starting a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a new album, and perhaps even organizing a tour in the next year or so. Oh, and as housemates, they have Dalia's four boys (who are currently in their 'we hate girls' phase), ranging in age from three to nine, to tend to. In between practice, upcoming gigs at Matchless Bar in Greenpoint, and preparing for the high holy days in September, the ladies will continue to field questions from nosy reporters like this one about everything from the meaning of their lyrics to their stance on transgender audience members.

"We get that question a lot," Wolfe says. "At the end of the day, it's not on us. Whether or not you follow the Torah has nothing to do with our music. If you're a woman, come to our shows. That's all that matters."