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Dalia Shusterman was running late. Two of her four boys, both already in their Spider-Man pajamas, yarmulkes on their heads, sat eating macaroni and cheese under a portrait of the Lubavitcher rebbe. A third son, toy violin in hand, marched around their Brooklyn apartment asking what time the 40-year-old single mother would be home. Shusterman distractedly unscrewed her Sabian cymbals from the drum kit in the middle of the living room as she briefed the baby sitter on each child’s bedtime.
“Dalia, we’ve got sound check. Let’s go!” said Perl Wolfe, 28, who stood in the doorway. Wolfe wore a modest black and white print dress with a wide red belt over her thin frame, her feet in red Keds. “We are going to have to touch up makeup and curl our sheitls when we get there,” she said, brushing a strand of long, brown hair from her wig.
Shusterman wrapped her arms around her sons as they kissed her goodbye, the white strings of their traditional tallis katan visible under their pajamas.
Wolfe, Shusterman and their bandmates, Elisheva Maister and Dana Pestun, piled into a minivan with cymbals, cello and a Styrofoam mannequin head for curling their wigs. Known as Bulletproof Stockings, they are an all-female, Hasidic alternative rock band that plays shows for women-only audiences.
“There is nothing wrong with men. We like men. Men are totally awesome,” Wolfe said. “There are plenty of mixed spaces to rock out, but there aren’t a lot of places women can go to rock out by themselves.”
Shusterman agreed, adding that playing all-female shows is not due to religious restrictions but rather is a way to create a powerful communal space for women.
“There is something that happens when there is a room full of only women,” she said. “Within our community, we take it for granted. But when we bring it out to the wider world and you get these secular, non-Jewish girls coming to these shows and feeling so inspired with the experience, you feel like you’re doing something right.”
‘There is this running joke about Hasidic women from people on the outside of the community that their stockings are so super-opaque that they call them bulletproof. But ‘bulletproof’ is also strength and toughness, and stockings are very feminine and sheer.’
Singer and songwriter Wolfe cites influences as varied as Etta James, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Motown. After performing in choirs and playing piano as a child, Wolfe began writing her own music shortly after her second divorce at age 24.
“All this music started flooding in from nowhere,” she said. “And at the same time, I was going through a religious crisis, because [of] everything that went on with the marriage. I guess it was a difficult time for me, and I was re-evaluating everything I wanted in my life and how I wanted to live my life in Judaism.”
Unlike Wolfe, Shusterman did not grow up in the Hasidic community. A modern Orthodox Jew, Shusterman played and toured the country as part of psychedelic rock band Hopewell. But after attending a 2001 event in Crown Heights and meeting the man who would become her husband, Rabbi Paz Shusterman, she became part of the Chabad movement.
“I have this spiritual side to me, and I had a hard time marrying the two parts, but eventually I kind of stepped off the tour bus and went to learn more about my spiritual path,” Shusterman said. The couple married and settled in Los Angeles.
She said her course took a turn when her husband died suddenly. Wanting a fresh start, she and her children moved to Crown Heights in 2011. She started getting calls from people asking if she still played music. Wolfe, who wanted to collaborate with her, was one of them.
“It was such an immediate connection, it was a no-brainer,” Shusterman said.
The band’s name comes from the thick, opaque stockings Hasidic women sometimes wear.
“There is this running joke about Hasidic women from people on the outside of the community that their stockings are so super-opaque that they call them bulletproof,” Shusterman explained. “But ‘bulletproof’ is also 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.”
The women released their first EP, Down to the Top, in 2012 and have steadily expanded beyond small concerts in their community to bigger shows in Manhattan and Los Angeles.
But even as their popularity has grown beyond Brooklyn’s large Hasidic community, Bulletproof Stockings has refused to compromise its members’ religious convictions. The women-only live shows are designed to respect kol isha, a Jewish law that forbids a man to listen to singing by a woman outside of his immediate family. But Shusterman said it is about female empowerment, not oppression.
“There is a misconception that women are completely under men’s thumbs in the Hasidic community,” she said. “And a lot of people felt that we were doing this because we are oppressed women, that we are buying into the patriarchal system. But that’s totally not the case, thank God. This is actually a culture where women are incredibly valued.”
Outside Bar Matchless in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, a venue whose Wednesday night schedule usually includes heavy metal parking lot karaoke, a line of modestly dressed older women in short, bobbed wigs mixed with younger women in miniskirts and sandals. The lone male in the room was a sound technician.
A group of women in their 60s and 70s sat chatting, some holding draft beers. Quite a few were wearing the band’s eponymous stockings. As Wolfe launched into “Easy Pray,” toes in conservative black flats started tapping.
“Rock bottom is when I say stop/ And I followed you all the way down to the top/ And I came to the conclusion you’d preset to be/ Illuminate for me,” Wolfe sang in her deep, bursting voice.
Bodies swayed. An older woman swung her scarf in the air. Another woman grabbed the end, and a circle formed as several generations of women danced inside. Esther Chen, a first-time Bulletproof Stockingsconcertgoer, was one of them.
“There was a woman behind me in her 70s, and when she heard my friend call out to me, she said, ‘Oh, I’m an Esther too. Let’s dance,’” Chen said. “Even though it is just women in the audience, there is a lot of diversity and so many generations.”
Wolfe’s palms arched over her keyboard as the first notes of “Vagabond’s Wagon” flowed out. A stroke of the cello’s fat bow produced an earthy, deep sound. Shusterman sat, eyes closed, counting time behind her drum kit. At the back window of the bar, men curiously looked in, and a few of them pressed their ears up to the glass to hear.
Near the stage, Sprintza Blumenthal swayed to the beat, her head wrapped in a colorful scarf, her knees and elbows covered with a bright turquoise skirt and top. The artist and mother of three said she has followed Bulletproof Stockings since its early days playing at yeshivas.
“I think it’s really important to show the world that we are really strong Hasidic women, that we are not the stereotype of the sort of meek, shy kind of woman who wears all black,” she said. “We are very different, especially in the Chabad community, and we are very into meeting all kinds of people and accepting different people into our community.”
As the hourlong set wound down, Shusterman and Wolfe thanked the crowd. Hauling their gear back out the front door to head home and relieve the baby sitter, both had huge smiles on their faces as woman after woman walked up to give them hugs or shake their hands.
“We are not doing this because we have a need to be rock stars,” Wolfe said. “We are doing this because we have a need to share gifts that we have been given with the world in a positive way, and that’s what Chassidus is all about.”