The sidewalk outside Arlene’s Grocery on the Lower East Side of New York is usually populated by die hard rock fans and frat boys looking for late night shenanigans, but last Thursday night was a different scene: TV cameras, news vans, and hordes of women—many of them Orthodox Jews—were eagerly awaiting the official live debut of Hasidic alt-rock girl band Bulletproof Stockings, in front of a female-only audience. (The Jewish law of kol isha prohibits Orthodox women from performing in front of men.) There were long wigs, hippie headscarves, chic hats, sleeves and skirts of varying lengths—not to mention the non-Orthodox attendees dressed in less modest summer attire, canvas tote bags slung across bare shoulders. The eclectic crowd chatted freely with the many journalists who had come to cover the show, which was being filmed by filmed by Oxygen for their forthcoming TV series Living Different.
“Mom, I’m so glad we’re doing this together,” a twenty-something woman in an unassuming dress said to the bewigged, middle-aged woman standing next to her. Teens dressed in the ‘uniform’ of Orthodox high-schoolers (button-down shirt, pleated skirt, flat loafers) tried to conceal their excitement at stepping into a real, secular rock venue. Inside, the crowd generally avoided the bar, some ordering ice water from a bored-looking bartender. “It doesn’t even look like they all came from Crown Heights!” a woman triumphantly cried as she scanned the room, waiting for the listed set time of 7pm to begin.
Previous BPS shows have traditionally targeted niche Orthodox audiences through private fundraisers or school events, but this was the first gig open to the public, and it clearly made its mark in the press and on social media. Facebook seemed to be the primary driver of the evening, along with the promise of dancing alone with no men in the crowd, and of course, the music. “We are Jews. We like music!” a young woman informed me, explaining why she and her friends had come. “That’s it, really.”
A pair of Orthodox sisters-in-law from New Jersey and Brooklyn had convened in Manhattan for the event. For them, it was a opportunity to have a great night out in a women’s only crowd, but in a non-traditional, not-super-Jewish setting. “The focus seems to have been about the headline: men excluded,” they observed. Their dress indicated different degrees of Orthodoxy: one wore a wig, long sleeves and skirt; the other was dressed conservatively, but with her hair uncovered. While attending shows in mixed company isn’t universally unacceptable among more modern Orthodox Jews, it was clear that the option to attend a Ladies Only night was welcomed by many in the audience, regardless of their level of religious observance.
“That’s actually the only reason I came! I don’t want to be bothered!” laughed Miriam Heimowitz, a Brooklyn music lover who heard about the show on Facebook and looked forward to dancing on her own, without risking the sexual harassment that often presents itself at the average music show. “I heard one song. I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t like the music,” she clarified, but admitted she was intrigued by the band’s story as much as their sound. “I think it’s so neat, I love it.”
Expectations were undeniably high as keyboardist and vocalist Perl Wolfe opened the show. “I see a lot of people I know, and a lot of people I don’t know,” she said, as roommate and BPS collaborator Dalia Shusterman got settled behind the drum kit. “Have you seen the news? Guys are not liking it… I guess they just really want to see us play live!”
Wolf’s powerful vocals are reminiscent of Fiona Apple and Florence and the Machine, but BPS’ songs are far from the standard female indie pop-rock. The duo has brought on several other band members to enrich their sound, including a cellist, violinist, and bass player. There was an acapella version of a classic Chabad-Hasidic niggun, Tzamah Lecha Nafshi, sung by Wolfe to a silent crowd (but those familiar with the tune hummed along during the refrain). Later in the set, their Middle-Eastern/gypsy version of a classic Chabad High Holiday tune inspired a crowd of women to dance in a decidedly non-Yom-Kippur-like manner.
There were tinges of indie rock, pop, blues, and even funk throughout the setlist, augmented with covers of Chabad songs, along with hits from the band’s first EP, released in 2012. The dancing picked up in tempo as they kicked into a classic Chabad niggun referencing “Ashreinu Mah Tov Chelkeinu” (“How Happy are we with our lot, how grateful are we with our inheritance”), the beats closer to the tune’s Eastern European peasant origins than the version popularized by the Rebbes of Chabad. The jiving crowd of hipsters, housewives, and ladies of all sorts were the epitome of BPS’ mission and vision: to empower women, and give them a chance to have fun on their own turf, in their own space.
Though BPS has been buzzed about in the local Jewish press for a couple of years now, they really became a New York media sensation in the lead-up to Thursday’s show. The spin varied from supportive to curious to suspicious to misogynistic. Some, such as Gawker, championed the women’s ability to ban the “mixed-junk crowd,” others seized upon the essential point that men had been excluded from the audience. Some commenters expressed concern that the event could set a precedent for all-white, all-men, or all-Jewish shows in the future.
For those used to the more typical indie rock-band circuit, the set might have seemed loosely constructed, the music almost repetitive, the technical problems a little too frequent. But the majority of the crowd wasn’t fussed, drinking up every element of the experience, relishing their opportunity to let their hair (or wig) down, rock out, and support women in music all at once. The show closed out with an encore of the hit “Frigid City,” played earlier in the set to an excited crowd, leading Wolfe to admit that “maybe we should’ve saved that one to the end.”
Freidel Levin, a florist and events planner who hosted the first ever BPS show in her Crown Heights flower shop, said she felt “extremely proud” of Shusterman and Levin, “who had a dream, and made it happen, because that is not something you find often, and I support that 100 per cent… I started my own business, and the people that supported me give me so much strength. I want to give that to my friends. They rock, they really do! I love their music and I love their vibe. It’s win-win!”
Chatting online later that night, Shusterman said she was still overwhelmed by the attention the show had received. She laughed off the flack from the anti-feminist underbelly of the Internet, complete with cheap shots at religion and cries of misandry. “We expected some, but these guys are getting really emotional about it!” she said, recalling some of the comments she’d been urged not to read that had nevertheless slipped through the net. “We’ve got guys making up halachos (Jewish laws), and others saying we’re bringing them back to The Stone Age, bless them… They’ve got us cracking up.” Online conversation has often focused on the restrictions of kol isha, rather than BPS’ mission of empowerment. “The vibe was electric, the women were on fire, totally enjoying themselves!” Dalia effuses, recalling the Hasidic-style mosh-pit, as bewigged heads banged to the hit Frigid City encore. “This was not a night about restrictions. It was about breaking off the shackles of social expectations.”
Rishe Groner is a writer and music blogger in New York, by way of Australia. Follow her on Twitter @rishegee.