Bulletproof ballads

Bulletproof ballads

The Hasidic women alternative rock band Bulletproof Stockings performed at Chatham University Saturday, March 22. Performing, from left, are Elisheva Maister, Perl Wolfe and Dalia Shusterman. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Leah Schild)
The Hasidic women alternative rock band Bulletproof Stockings performed at Chatham University Saturday, March 22. Performing, from left, are Elisheva Maister, Perl Wolfe and Dalia Shusterman. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Leah Schild)

Chatham University’s campus was rocked on Saturday night by the Bulletproof Stockings, a name that playfully pokes fun at the thick opaque tights worn by Orthodox Jewish women and whose members are Chassidic with a soulful and rock-filled sound.

Hailing from Brooklyn, N.Y., vocalist Perl Wolfe and drummer Dalia Shusterman met in 2011 and started the Bulletproof Stockings under the auspices of religious kol isha tradition – they perform their alternative rock songs to women-only audiences, preserving their sound to follow the Torah prohibition against men hearing nonfamily women’s singing.

The Eddy Theater concert on Chatham’s campus brought women to their feet, away from the bright red theater seats that would otherwise constrict their dancing, and into the aisles, as Wolf and Shusterman, accompanied by a traveling band member and cellist Elisheva Maister, sang a handful of songs to the room of about 100 fans.

Wolfe’s distinctive voice brought familiar tunes to the theater, and  her banter made the crowd “ooh” and “ahh” as the band took a slight intermission to attend to a misshapened drum.

Pittsburgh is “just like Brooklyn, only less crowded and less cranky,” Wolfe said into the mic while wrapped in a leopard-print floor-length skirt and a purple leather jacket. “And the pizza is good; really good.”

When the band arrived in Pittsburgh on Friday, it posted a photo to its Facebook page of the green Squirrel Hill mural at the corner of Murray Avenue and Beacon Street. A couple of moments later, Wolfe posted an image from inside of Jerry’s Records, with the hashtag, #recordheaven and #thisisincredible.

The band had a taste of Pittsburgh thanks to two of its sponsors, the Chabad House on Chatham’s Campus and Squirrel Hill’s Tzohar Seminary for Chassidus and the Arts, which helped to place the women with a host family that included Shabbat with the creative group from the Seminary. Amy Guterson, founder and director of Tzohar, said events like this are crucial to giving her post-high school group new ways to be artistic while encouraging young women to make their own mark on this world.

“This is an amazing group of women,” Guterson said of Bulletproof Stockings. “Their mission to sing for women’s audiences is in line with what we do at Tzohar Seminary; it was a perfect group to bring to Pittsburgh.”

She lauded “the night of women’s empowerment” and the empowering expression of the group.

As the night raged on, women – mostly Chassidic – felt inspired enough to go beyond tapping their feet.

Songs with a faster beat brought nearly all of the women to the theater’s sidelines. With clapping from nearly everyone in the house, “Frigid City,” a track on the band’s “Take it to the Top” album, not only brought swoons from the crowd,  it was requested again during an encore that brought the concert close to the midnight hour.

“I love you all dancing,” said Wolfe. “It really brings good energy.”

The band is working on taking its music and mission of “bridging the gap between keeping their faith and following their dreams” to the big screen. The Bulletproof Stockings recently released a documentary titled the same as the band.

The film was also given a Pittsburgh premiere. On Saturday night, the documentary introduced the band before its members found their seats in the dark.

“[The documentary] is all about and how [Bulletproof Stockings] have overcome life’s challenges that other women have faced,” Chabad on Chatham’s marketing materials state. “It is a story of finding a way to utilize unique individual talents, in adverse circumstances while staying true to one’s faith.”

The film explored Wolfe and Shusterman’s lives before forming the band. Wolfe’s second divorce and Shusterman’s becoming a widow with four small children formed a bond between the pair that continues to carry a streak of a strong women’s movement, a stand for independence.

“I actually remember that first spark of inspiration; it happened the day I received my get (Jewish divorce),” said Wolfe. “My ex and I wished each other well and exchanged blessings and good tidings, and as I walked away, I was simultaneously crying and smiling, because somehow I knew that I was exactly where I was meant to be.”

Wolfe wrote poetry, which turned into lyrics and ultimately turned into a message.

“It really felt like Hashem was revealing a mission to me, one that I actually ran away from for a while,” explained Wolfe. “Ultimately, it was the music, and specifically the lyrics, that made me realize that I truly am a chossid, that I really do believe in Hashem and Torah, and that is what led me back to Crown Heights to start Bulletproof Stockings.”

When tragedy struck, Shusterman also took the gift of music to heart.

“As crazy as it is to say, being husbandless left [me] with a big enough void to create BPS in,” said Shusterman. “Making music and performing has made this new chapter not only about reinvention from being the new widow on the block to the gleeful drummer-girl on stage, but also about transcendence, because, as our sages say, music brings joy, and joy breaks all boundaries.”

Now the two bandmates live together; Wolfe quit her job as a makeup artist to focus on the band, and Shusterman welcomed the caretaking help while doing some graphic design on the side, including most of the band’s marketing materials.

Saturday’s all-women event seemed like a perfect performance for Chatham University, whose undergraduate program is currently open to women enrollees only.

“We love doing women programming at Chatham,” said Sarah Weinstein, co-director at the local Chabad House.

Chabad on Chatham student president Nancy Clark expressed her thanks to Chatham for being so open to the group’s events. And as the lights went up, she said she had hoped for more of the general Chatham student body to attend the rock concert, even if the concert was a rare opportunity for Orthodox women to dance freely.

The music, she said, could most certainly touch the souls of many.

(The 2012 Chronicle article on Bulletproof Stockings by Toby Tabachnick, “Indie band Bulletproof Stockings refreshingly original,” can be found on our website, Bee Schindler can be reached at beeschindler@gmail.com.)