Monday, December 30, 2013

Blogging the JOFA Conference: The Bulletproof Stockings Documentary

This post is part of a series discussing the 2013 Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) 8th International Conference of Feminism and Orthodoxy. You can read my notes on this session here.

When I first heard about the band Bulletproof Stockings a couple years ago, I thought the name – a colloquial, sometimes derogatory, term for the thick and opaque stockings that Hasidic women wear – was hilarious. The existence of a Hasidic alt rock girl band that performs music in English with covert religious themes amused and intrigued me. However, I didn’t actually listen to their music until I saw that the Bulletproof Stockings documentary would be screened at the JOFA conference, with a talkback from band members Perl Wolfe and Dalia Schusterman moderated by Miriam Brousseau.

I did not expect to see many right-wing types, let alone Lubavitch Hasidic women, at the conference. As someone who falls more towards the right side of the religious spectrum, it bothers me that my peers don’t value feminism or think it’s necessary. Consequently, I was really happy that Bulletproof Stockings was at the conference. I’m totally ignorant of their beliefs towards feminism and how it intersects with Judaism, so I don’t know if they agreed with anything that was said at the conference, but the fact that they were there at all was really awesome.

I enjoyed watching the documentary, but the best part of the session was the talkback with Wolfe and Schusterman. It was inspiring to hear Schusterman chronicle her journey from playing drums in hard rock bands in New Orleans to becoming Lubavitch and forming Bulletproof Stockings. “Hashem [God] wanted me to be in a band,” Schusterman shrugged. “Hashem just kept putting me in the path of drums.” Both women are truly dedicated to their craft, using their talents for musical expression. “We want to create music we’ll enjoy listening to, not just to fill the void of Jewish music,” Wolfe said.

I really respect the two for sticking to their morals and only performing for all-female audiences in order to avoid kol isha (the prohibition of women singing in front of men). “We’re not doing it [performing exclusively for women] because we decided that it would be a great way to make money,” Wolfe said. “We’re doing it because we believe that this is our mission as women and this is what we were meant to do.” Bulletproof Stockings puts their money where their mouth is, and I appreciate that.

Although it may present a challenge to only perform for women only, Bulletproof Stockings’ audience definitely appreciates the single-sex space. I have always fervently championed women-only spaces in both the religious and secular worlds (link here), so I found Wolfe and Schusterman’s discussion of this issue fascinating. When someone from the audience asked whether there’s a Bulletproof Stockings for men, Schusterman replied that men don’t need it; “they have Minha [afternoon prayers] and Ma’ariv [evening prayers],” services that traditionally only men attend. This parallel between modern music and ancient prayers struck me. I think it just comes to show that when women yearn to have increased access to Jewish spirituality, they will find methods of religious self-expression.

Wolfe pointed out that Bulletproof Stockings creates a women-only space in the secular world, which is rarely done. She said that when she tells secular women that men aren’t allowed into their concerts, their response is invariably “I’m not gonna be bothered by guys at a club? That’s fantastic, I’ll see you there! With five of my girlfriends!” I’m happily surprised that they’ve found the secular response to be overwhelming positive.

Secular women don’t just come to concerts because of the “no boys allowed” rule; Bulletproof Stockings’ music certainly has crossover appeal in itself. I think that it’s a real kiddush Hashem (positive example) that women from all backgrounds can rock out together. “We have Jews, non-Jews, hipsters, African-Americans, all sorts from Crown Heights that walk into private shows, we never know who’s going to come. Our vision to have a sisterhood party happening around the world is totally happening, that’s really what we’re about,” Schusterman said.

Although it may be trite, I strongly believe that sisterhood is powerful, and the idea of a global sisterhood party really appeals to me. I do think that music can be experienced differently in women-only spaces, and that it’s important to foster that, at least while the patriarchy is still in power. And I mean, how can you not like a band with enough chutzpah to call themselves Bulletproof Stockings?

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