By Miriam Brosseau
It’s not shtick. It’s an honest-to-Hashem all-girl Hasidic alt-rock band. And it works, because it’s real.
The first time I saw Bulletproof Stockings in performance, they were playing in a crowded, small converted flower shop in Crown Heights, surrounded by a motley assortment of Lubavitch women and a few stragglers like myself. It was an unlikely gig: a rock concert for frum (religious) women not half a mile from 770 Eastern Parkway, the world headquarters of Chabad. Drinks were being passed around, as cliques of women formed and migrated around the tight quarters. The tin ceiling tiles reverberated with the women and young mothers who had managed to find sitters for the evening. I shuffled around, eager for somewhere to direct my attention.
Then the band took the stage. I was prepared to be underwhelmed; I’d heard other for-women-only music groups and found them sweet, but hackneyed. Sincere, but saccharine. Always too freiliche (lively). This, though, was something different.
Perl Wolfe sat behind her keyboard the way I picture Danica Patrick sitting behind the wheel of her racecar. She shook her fist in the air and stomped her stylish feet, all the while willing her take-no-prisoners voice through the confines of the microphone. Behind her, Dalia Shusterman worked the drums with energy and intensity, treating her set as an instrument intended for melody as much as for rhythm. On top of that, the songs were really expressive, as I confirmed later by looking at the lyrics; although their melodies resounded, I couldn’t make out more than a word or two during the concert itself. The show had all the elements of house concerts and VA rock shows I attended in high school: too loud, too crowded, too hot.
It was awesome.
I have heard Bulletproof Stockings a couple of times since and have even played guitar with them on occasion. They approach every show fresh-faced and excited, and walk away intensely critical of themselves and their performance: It could have been better; it could have rocked harder; this is what we need to change next time.
Every time I have met these two women, I come away with a sense of how deep and important the bond between them is. Perl and Dalia represent a particular breed of musical co-conspirators. Ask them, and they’ll tell you that every step of their journey together is evidence of a still, small voice urging them to do this work—here, now, together. Their music is their shlichut (mission). They do it because they love it, but equally because they genuinely can’t see themselves doing anything else.
Bulletproof Stockings has received a great deal of attention in the past year or so—video interviews, articles in Jewish and non-Jewish publications, even two documentaries, and their own Wikipedia page. They’ve got great momentum—which naturally leads to the question asked within so many of the aforementioned stories: How far can you go if you perform only for women?
For Dalia and Perl, it’s not even a question under consideration. Even though they cannot control who hears their recorded music (especially online), they play for all-female audiences, period. Their commitment to being a band by women and for women comes from the same place as their decision to keep Shabbat or eat kosher. They are Hasidic women, and this is how they roll. Even the name “Bulletproof Stockings” is a rebranding of a some-what derogatory term for an item of frum women’s fashion, the thick tights worn by some women in the ultra-Orthodox community. Perl and Dalia see the stockings as a badge of honor. They are, and aspire to be, both explicitly feminine and tough as iron. They embody their Hasidic roots and their musical wings equally.
Fame, Frumkeit, and the Future
At the recent JOFA conference, I hosted a discussion with Perl and Dalia, and we spoke briefly about the trump card of all successful Jewish musicians—Matisyahu. The comparison is stifling—but inevitable for a group growing out of the Chabad community. Matisyahu’s beard practically needed its own PR firm as the world watched and analyzed his religious transformation. Bulletproof Stockings has the potential for a similar crossover appeal. Will their convictions hold in the face of fame?
The answer, I think, is a resounding yes. On the other hand, I believe that is the wrong question. Integrity does not preclude evolution. Bulletproof Stockings will change, perhaps dramatically. Their music, their look, their relationships with one another and with their fans and critics all are destined to develop in ways no one can anticipate. The duo has faced dramatic and difficult changes before: Perl is twice divorced, and Dalia is a widow with four young boys. What makes Bulletproof Stockings as compelling as it is has everything to do with how they embrace those challenges, focus on God, and pre-show laughter of single turn sadness into rock-and-roll.
The future, though uncertain, is hopeful. Perl has left her job as a manager at a makeup and beauty store to pursue her work with the band full-time. She and Dalia share an apartment and are continuing to book gigs and write songs; they dream of playing Berlin and winning a Grammy. They are at the forefront of a burgeoning renaissance of Jewish arts in Crown Heights. In pockets all around the community, visual artists, songwriters, and comedians are testing their skills in a more public way. It’s happening both in Crown Heights and throughout the Lubavitch world. It is especially prominent and exciting among women, who up until now have only been strumming out tentative tunes to the four walls around them. Now women flock in groups to open mic nights and fundraisers featuring female voices.
Wherever they may go from here, Bulletproof Stockings will continue to make their music and inspire other
women to share their own music—and, all the while, keep it real.
Miriam Brosseau is director of engagement at See3 Communications and half of the “Biblegum pop” duo Stereo