In early August, Bulletproof Stockings made headlines for performing the first women-only show at Arlene’s Grocery, a rock venue in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Dalia G. Shusterman and Perl Wolfe are the founding members of the New York-based all-girl indie band. They are also followers of the Lubavitch sect of Judaism, which is why many media outlets have attributed their single sex show to the Jewish law of Kol Isha. The law states that women cannot sing in front of men. But Dalia and Perl say that Jewish law has nothing to do with their girls-only gigs.
I met with Dalia, 40, and Perl, 27, at their apartment in Crown Heights Brooklyn a week after the big show. Perl wore a gray floor-length leopard skirt and blue leather moto jacket. Her eyeliner was flicked into the perfect cat eye. Dalia wore a similar outfit—a denim jacket with a black skirt and bright red lipstick. Both looks were in line with their beliefs concerning modesty, but they still looked like they played in a band.
In the middle of their family room strewn with children’s toys and religious paraphernalia, sat a pearl white drum set and a Yamaha keyboard. I sat with them at their dining room table as they shared with me how they came together to form Bulletproof Stockings and the criticism they received after their gig at Arlene’s.
“We are not doing it for religious reasons. We can play for anyone, but Jewish men are not supposed to listen. So it is totally on them,” said Dalia. “According to the law, we can stand on Kingston Avenue and sing our hearts out. We don’t do that because we don’t want to put men in an awkward position. But more than that, we do this to create a space for women."
Dalia discovered her talent for drumming at age 16 when she played a pair of bongos on stage at an Earth First festival in Washington, DC. The experience led her to play on the streets of the capital and eventually leave home to play in New Orleans. The Big Easy opened up numerous opportunities for Dalia, who eventually went on to tour internationally as the drummer for the band Hopewell.
Dalia was raised modern Orthodox, but lost interest at a young age. It wasn’t until five years later during a trip to Brooklyn to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot that she met her future husband and returned to her religious roots.
“When I met him, I had one more gig with Hopewell. Then my relationship with the band totally disintegrated. I wasn’t ready to give up music, so I started singing cabaret at the Bowery Ballroom. Eventually I started doing Sabbath again and making Jewish friends, which I never had. It is a crazy story because he was one class away from becoming a Rabbi and I had just stepped off of the tour bus. When he met me, I didn’t know what color my hair was and I was wearing fishnets,” said Dalia.
Perl grew up in Chicago in a Lubavitch family where she began classical training on the piano at age six. Her mother had hopes that she would play piano professionally, but she wasn't into it. She went on to study psychology with the goal of becoming a social worker, but took a break from school after her first divorce at 21. Perl moved to New York, where she pursued make-up fulltime at Bloomingdales. It wasn’t until after her second divorce at age 25, that she discovered her ability to write music.
“It was a crazy time. I was struggling religiously and emotionally. After contemplating a lot I decided, I am a Hassid, this is my life. I thought, I am going to form a women’s band and take over New York. It was strange after months of not keeping Sabbath or Kosher. The music helped me realize how my beliefs are a huge part of who I am. I wasn’t trying to write about anything specific, it was just coming out,” said Perl.
In 2011, Dalia moved to Crown Heights with her four sons after the sudden death of her husband. A mutual friend suggested Perl reach out to Dalia and shortly after meeting, they formed Bulletproof Stockings. The name was inspired by the thick style of stockings worn by certain sects of Hasidic women.
“We had a funny moment when we first met. We have both been previously married so we both cover our hair with wigs. I had a wig head on my dresser. When she came in she said, ‘What is that for—dress up?’ Since I am a single girl, she hadn’t thought that I had been married before,” Perl said.
Since 2011, Perl and Dalia have recorded an EP and are currently working on their first full-length album. The music paired with Perl’s soulful vocals produce a sound that falls somewhere between Cat Power's You Are Free and Fiona Apple's When the Pawn… They also play traditional religious melodies.
“Most of our music is original, but we throw in Hasidic melodies as well. With a more secular crowd we are like, When do we hit them with the Hasidic? But people love it. More secular people come over and rave about the Hasidic stuff,” said Perl.
Over the past two and a half years, Bulletproof Stockings have played shows for their community and at women’s universities and festivals. But Arlene’s was the first time they rocked a well-known venue with a secular crowd. According to them, it has been difficult for places to agree to turn away half of an audience. Dalia and Perl had to hit the streets to gain signatures supporting their women-only show for Arlene’s to move forward with their performance. To their surprise, the night of the show brought a packed crowd, many intrigued by the novelty of a Hasidic all-girl band playing to an all-female crowd.
“We are making a conscious choice as two adult women to cut out half of our audience because we see how women are moved by an environment like that,” said Perl. “The energy is totally different. The girls are much nicer to each other. It is like a sisterhood.”
Although many women have been excited about the idea of a single sex space, Bulletproof Stockings has received a lot of backlash about their decision to close their shows to men.
“We had someone tell us we should make an apology to the people of the United States because we are such bigots,” said Dalia.
“Guys are really having a hard time with it. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact we are Hasidic. A lot of people have misconceptions. They say we are oppressed, because we are just 'baby machines,'” said Perl. “People are also running away with the feminist thing, saying we must hate men or be lesbians. No one is really getting what we are saying. We just want an all girl party. Is it that big of a deal?”
Many women have also accused Bulletproof Stockings of banning lesbians and transgender people or assuming that you must follow their rules of modesty to attend their shows.
“I think the main point that is getting brushed over is that our shows are for women. People ask can lesbians come? Can transgender people come? If you’re a woman, come to our shows,” said Perl. “What if a guy comes in drag and gets in? Do I have to dress modestly? Can I come if I am not Jewish? Judaism does not preach that anyone else needs to keep the Torah. We don’t enforce our laws on other people. We are who we are and hopefully girls will be excited and find inspiration in that. The more diverse our shows, the better.”
The ladies of Bulletproof Stockings are scheduled to play another women-only show at Matchless in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on September 10.
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