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Bulletproof Stockings play by their rules

Female Hasidic rock band finding fans despite 'ban' of males

The Columbian
Published: August 15, 2014, 5:00pm

NEW YORK — At least among their fans, Bulletproof Stockings already have a breakout song: By request, the all-female Hasidic rock group played the upbeat “Frigid City” as an encore — the second time they played it in one set at Arlene’s Grocery in Manhattan on Thursday night.

The audience loved it.

That audience, by the way, was entirely female — as long as you ignored the mixed-gender reality-show production crew lining the back of the sold-out venue.

Bulletproof Stockings are led by keyboardist/singer Perl Wolfe and drummer Dalia Shusterman, who live in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, the center of the world’s Hasidic Jewish population. As the news media noticed this week, the group “bans” men from its live shows.

That’s because of a Hasidic prohibition called kol isha that bans men from listening to women outside their immediate family sing (although not vice versa). Bulletproof Stockings chose to follow that law by making their live shows women-only.

Although the prohibition does not bar women from singing, it does put practical limitations on the group’s Hasidic fan base: An all-male Hasidic band (yes, they do exist) can build a Hasidic following from 100 percent of the population — men and women. A female Hasidic singing group such as Bulletproof Stockings can, at most, perform for 50 percent of the Hasidic community.

To grow its fan base, the band is trying to cross over to new audiences of women. Thursday’s gig at Arlene’s Grocery, on the Lower East Side, was the group’s highest-profile attempt to do that.

The alt-rock part of the group’s set hardly revealed anything about the performers’ religious adherence. But Wolfe also sang several nigunim, religious songs that are emblematic of the Hasidic worship style.

Because only Hasidic men are allowed to perform for a mixed audience, outsiders will usually hear these tunes sung only by men, even though both men and women would know them. Thursday night, Wolfe had about a quarter of the audience singing along to the nigunim.

“I read in the newspaper — I can’t remember which one — about this alt-rock Hasidic all-woman rock band, and I knew I had to come,” Judy Dauber said before the show. Dauber, 51, who identified her beliefs as “conservodox” Jewish (i.e., somewhere between conservative and Orthodox), said that she saw that group as an “example” to young women, both within and outside of the Orthodox community.

“Hashem blessed them with beautiful voices,” she said, adding, “What better role model can you get for the Jewish community than the ladies of this band?”

Dauber hadn’t heard of Bulletproof Stockings before reading about Thursday’s gig. At the end of the night, the schoolteacher, who lives on the Lower East Side, emerged from the venue beaming, with one of the group’s CDs.

‘Living Different’

Music wasn’t the only medium in play Thursday. When a concert is also a reality-show taping, the prevailing narrative is shaped by the producers on the scene. The band’s gig was taped for Oxygen’s “Living Different,” which Variety described as “a candid look at women who lead unconventional or alternative lifestyles.”

The story here is necessarily similar: Bulletproof Stockings were on the stage to perform and also to prove something about what Hasidic women performing only for women can do, despite assumptions.

It seemed as if a lot of people in the audience were there to support that message. When Shusterman ran out of water two songs into the set, a member of the audience leaped onstage to give the group her own water.

Although producers were there to engineer the story for television, the audience hardly needed coaching to help tell it. Early in the set, Wolfe announced that the group was about to play “Vagabond’s Wagon,” prompting fans at the front of the room to whoop and cheer.

“Looks like we’ve got some fans,” Wolfe said.

“I love that song!” one of the fans shouted.

“We paid her,” Wolfe said.

In the center of the small room, a group of teenage girls — some dressed with the same covered-elbows-and-knees-and-high-neckline modesty of the band, some not — danced in a circle as Wolfe belted a song with her powerful, bluesy voice.

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Older, modestly dressed women lined stools at the side of the room and along the bar.

For the most part, the audience seemed oblivious to the cameras in back — and to reporters moving through the crowd, looking for reactions to the novelty of it all.

Yael Khaytin, a Hasidic 34-year-old friend of the band’s who lives in Crown Heights, said she has been to “basically all” of the Bulletproof Stockings shows. Thursday’s — sold out, with cameras rolling — was different.

“It’s amazing,” she said.