The world of religious Jewish music has been shaken up by a duo of Lubavitcher women – humorously titled ‘Bulletproof Stockings’ – who perform emotionally expressive songs in a modern rock musical setting. Defying the stereotype of cloistered Chassidic females, 26-year-old Perl Wolfe and 38-year-old Dalia Shusterman invoke such trendy influences as Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as they “rock out” in studio and on stage – though only singing live to women, in keeping with halachic restrictions.
Wolfe and Shusterman have managed to find a productive professional outlet for their artistic urges in a manner that seemingly does not clash with their Chassidic community. “We have standards that we believe in, and they’re very clear to us,” Shusterman says. “We want to be role models, but we can’t make everybody happy.” The group’s name is a knowing wink at the opaque pantyhose worn by many Chassidic women, and it represents the duo’s simultaneous reverence for Orthodox tradition and desire to maintain a somewhat lighthearted attitude toward life.
Both women are staking out their independence in the wake of personal turbulence – Wolfe is divorced, and Shusterman is raising four children after becoming widowed about a year ago. Their primary income derives from “regular” work, as Wolfe is a makeup artist who oversees a Boro Park cosmetics store and Shusterman is a part-time graphic designer. But their creative impulses come to the fore during the evenings, when Bulletproof Stockings alternately do live shows at a variety of New York concert venues and toil on the production of their first album, which will be a follow-up to their four-track EP “Down to the Top.”
The two budding Jewish pop stars – Wolfe is the group’s singer and keyboardist, while Shusterman plays drums – defend their very public persona as female performers who have attracted Orthodox male followers, despite the religious injunction against singing for men. “The deal is that it’s not a women’s mitzvah not to play,” Shusterman explains. “It’s a man’s mitzvah not to listen. Anyone who knows halacha will tell you this. There are plenty of frum women putting their music out, and YouTube and Amazon and iTunes are the media for getting it out there.” She emphasizes that they will not perform live for men.
“We believe there is a beauty in keeping things separate,” Wolfe chimes in. “We want to create this space for women to sing and dance and jump up and down and mosh pit…we need it. Girls need it.”
The two hope that their efforts will inspire other observant Jewish females to take up music. “We really want girls to pick up their instruments and start getting into it. There’s a weird misconception that it’s not Jewish to do this kind of thing,” says Wolfe.
Both women come from unique backgrounds, where music was a part of their life. Shusterman was raised Modern Orthodox in Maryland, and she began performing with other teenage musicians as she discovered her knack for percussion. Gigs with independent rock groups soon followed, but while Shusterman enjoyed the experience immensely, she still felt a need for more spirituality – which she found when she joined Chabad Lubavitch in 2001.
Growing up in a Lubavitcher family in Chicago, Wolfe went through a rebellious phase and lapsed in her observance, but eventually recommitted to her religious roots. After her divorce, she became attracted to Lubavitch and settled in Crown Heights.
Despite the fact that Bulletproof Stockings’ musical style has been compared to Adele, Fiona Apple and Florence and the Machine, Wolfe maintains that her writing and singing are meant to reflect her own personality, which is shaped by Torah and Chabad philosophy. “I’m trying to channel my soul,” Wolfe asserts. “When I’m recording, I’m thinking, ‘Hashem, give me the right words, the right intention, so that it comes out the right way to inspire me and the people who will hear me.’”