Perl Wolfe is the lead singer in a rock band called Bulletproof Stockings. Dalia Shusterman plays the drums. That doesn’t sound too unusual — except that Bulletproof Stockings is made up of four Chasidic women — and their band only plays live for other women.
And if Wolfe, Shusterman and bandmates Dana Pestun and Elisheva Maister can help it, it will be “Ladies’ Night” at the World Cafe on Dec. 7.
The band — whose name pays homage to the opaque stockings Orthodox women often wear — will be playing the Philly venue for an all-female audience.
In Orthodox Judaism, men cannot hear women sing if they are not immediate family members, which might have put a nail in the coffin of their rock and roll dreams. But that hasn’t stopped stop the band from performing and doing what they love for the past four years.
Shusterman started playing percussion when she was a teenager as “kind of a fluke.” Growing up playing piano and different forms of percussion, from bongos to tambourine, Shusterman left her Maryland home to travel, eventually moving to New Orleans, where she learned “all kinds of music,” but mainly hand percussion.
She moved to New York to go to college, where someone asked her to join a band as the drummer. A gig was already planned, so they had just two weeks to piece together a drum set, and learn how to play and write songs, she recalled.
“I basically never looked back,” she said.
She stayed and toured with that band, Hopewell, for five years. They went to festivals, touring America and Europe.
However, there was something missing.
“My spiritual side was needing to be fed,” she said, “so I started taking classes and learning and eventually I was one step off the tour bus, and I met a kid who was one test away from becoming a rabbi. Somehow, the souls connected despite the different universes we were both in. I got married and kind of left the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing behind.”
After getting married, she took a detour from the rock and roll lifestyle, but she was still looking for a way to marry the two sides of her identity: the “creative and the musical” and the “spiritual,” as she put it.
For her, the answer came in the form of a band.
She knew she had to play with and for women if this was going to work. She came up with the name Bulletproof Stockings. All she needed: people to play with who identified with that image.
Enter Perl Wolfe.
The two women met in Crown Heights in Brooklyn after Shusterman’s husband passed away in 2012 and she moved with her four children back to New York.
Wolfe was going through her second divorce and was looking for answers. She had been living in New York and working on an album of Chasidic melodies at the time.
“That was the first time I was ever like, ‘Oh, people like hearing my voice. Maybe I’ll do something with it,’” Wolfe said.
A producer had suggested she write her own songs for the album. She was hesitant at first — she had never done anything like that before — but “a channel opened up and music just started pouring out.”
In 2012, Wolfe released her first EP, for which she wrote the songs in less than a week. Around the same time, she was working as a makeup artist in New York, but quit to move back to her parents’ house in Chicago to deal with her divorce.
“While I was there, I realized I really am a Chasid — that’s who I am,” Wolfe said, “and really the music more than anything helped me realize that because the lyrics were so clear to me. It was clearly to Hashem. All the music” she was creating “is based on Chasidism, Torah.”
She realized she really wanted to pursue music for women. Her first gig was at a yeshiva in Crown Heights. She was told to just play solo on her keyboard, but she wanted a band.
As fate would have it, a few weeks later, she met someone who knew Shusterman, who was looking for the same thing.
“When I heard Dalia’s music history, I was like, ‘wow that sounds too good to be true,’” Wolfe recalled. “She’s Chabad, she lives in my community, she wasn’t always religious, so she has secular music influences like I do, so we’ll have that in common.”
She called Shusterman to meet. After playing music together at Wolfe’s house, the women described it as an “an instant click.”
“We met, and her songs were amazing,” Shusterman remembered. “It was just like, ‘This is what I can make a band from.’ We clicked immediately. I knew we would take this out of Crown Heights, out of the States. There were so many miracles that happened around it.”
They recorded their first single in two weeks and played their first show a month a later.
“The women really went crazy,” Wolfe explained.
Performing to only women was an important aspect for both of them.
“Women are super-powerful and there’s something really special and powerful that happens when women come together and support each other,” Wolfe said. “We felt like it would just be a really great opportunity to create some sort of rock show for women to dance however they want to dance and have fun with their girlfriends.
“Even if women feel they don’t need it, it’s still a special time to enjoy themselves. Not a lot of people in the Chasidic world have that opportunity.”
While the venue cannot technically turn men away, men showing up for the show does change the atmosphere of the concert.
The duo emphasizes that they aren’t anti-men, but it’s important for them to give women an opportunity to be themselves that they may not usually get, the women said.
According to Wolfe, they want women to have the time to be who they are.
“It’s ‘Scout’s Honor,’ ” Shusterman chimed in, laughing, “that men don’t come so the women can enjoy it. We imagine at some point men will show up and we can’t kick them out, and we’ll keep playing. It’s more of a bummer for the women’s sake. The men should essentially respect not spoiling it for the other women.”
The band is currently in the recording stages of a new album, Homeland Call Stomp, which they described as “eclectic.” Its music draws from the women’s own musical inspirations, such as Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and the Pixies.
Their hope is that their music can provide a space for women to feel free being who they are, and to inspire others to find that spark themselves.
“One of the main things we’re trying to do is inspire girls and women to get in touch with their own gift,” Shusterman said. “Lighting up that fire for everyone to dig into what their gifts are and how they want to use them.”