Making Orthodoxy sexy again

The people who are stepping out of the shtetl.

American Hassidic alternative rock band, Bulletproof Stockings founders Perl Wolfe (left) and Dalia Shusterman. (photo credit: Courtesy)
American Hassidic alternative rock band, Bulletproof Stockings founders Perl Wolfe (left) and Dalia Shusterman.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Malka Schaps lives on “the frummest [most religiously observant] street in Bnei Brak,” as she says. She and her husband made aliya in 1972 from America and are now both fluent in Hebrew. She keeps a kosher home and follows the commandments, because as she told Tablet Magazine in a profile last year, for her Judaism is only interesting if there’s some mitzvot attached to it.
But Schaps is not what you think an ultra-Orthodox woman might be – a wallflower, in the kitchen, constantly pregnant or otherwise muzzled by the men in her community.
Besides being born into a Presbyterian family in Ohio and converting to Judaism in college (she later became haredi while finishing her PhD in theoretical math at Harvard), Schaps has served as the dean of Bar-Ilan University’s math and science department since 2013, having worked with the Education Ministry to increase opportunities for haredi girls and women in Israel to participate in more math and science programs.
But wait, there’s more. Besides being a professor, a theoretical mathematician, a wife and mother and a devoutly religious Jew, Schaps is also a novelist: She’s published eight novels in English and Hebrew under a pseudonym.
Schaps is not shy about her background or how she lives her life. She makes no attempt to hide her religious status when she’s at work or traveling around to conferences, and as she said, she hardly ever gets any flack for it: “The people who are in the same university are used to me, I’ve been around for 40 years; so the idea [of a frum mathematician] grew on them.”
She also noted that thus far in her work with the Education Ministry, she’s had a few success stories of young religious women who wanted to pursue careers.
THE IDEA of ultra-Orthodox women working is a known phenomenon in Israel. The trope of “the husband studies, his wife works” is a mainstay of religious life in many communities across the country.
But in the Diaspora, the idea of Orthodox Jews being out in the world and interacting with secular people – particularly having meaningful careers – is still an anomaly.
People making the leap include Schaps; Joyce Azria, the creative director of the fashion line BCBGeneration; Yael Federbush, the four-time Emmy-winning producer of The Today Show; and countless other men and women who happen to be deeply religious Jews and don’t shy away from the public sphere.
Of course, with a community as diverse, widespread and rapidly multiplying as this one, defining who is Orthodox in the first place is complicated.
In Israel, just 11.7 percent of Jews are Orthodox, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics’s 2009 study, but they also have a growth rate of 5%, compared with a growth rate of just 1.2 % in the non-religious population.
In the US, the 2013 Pew Research Center’s study of American-Jewish life revealed that 27% of Jews under the age of 18 live in “religious” households.
This would seem straightforward, except that a “Jew of religion” is not someone who is necessarily Orthodox, said sociologist Steve Cohen, a member of the Pew study advisory committee. In a few generations, sociologists predict, the Orthodox will comprise the largest swath of American Jews.
IT’S A Tuesday night in Brooklyn, and the scene would not be complete without some live music in a dive bar. There’s the usual crowd of tattooed and pierced hipsters, but there are also some be-skirted and be-sheiteled [wig-wearing] women.
In fact, at that moment, almost everyone in the bar is a woman: the bouncer, the sound technicians, the musicians on-stage – who are themselves wearing skirts and long sleeves.
They are Bulletproof Stockings, a Brooklyn-based hassidic rock band that performs only for women.
BPS, as they also call themselves, consist of Dalia Shusterman, 40, on drums, and Perl Wolfe, 28, on keyboard and vocals, along with a rotating cellist, violinist and guitarist.
Both Shusterman and Wolfe are frum and kosher, and live together with Shusterman’s children in New York’s Crown Heights, a hassidic enclave.
Entering their home presents a cacophony of cultures: Children’s drawings and toys mingle with a drum set and the cords for an electronic keyboard, which is propped up next to a bookshelf containing the usual miniature library of religious books. A portrait of the Lubavitcher Rebbe hangs on one wall – Wolfe was raised in a Chabad family in Chicago.
“My parents very much let us do the things we wanted to do, and pretty much everyone in my family took up some form of art or dance or music or all of the above, but I’ve stuck with it the longest,” detailed Wolfe.
While she studied classical music when she was little with her parents’ permission, she was also secretly listening to ’90s pop staples Brandy and Monica and the Spice Girls in her room. But it wasn’t until after her second divorce that she said she started writing music.
“Even when I wrote music for the first time, I wasn’t planning to do something for it,” Wolfe recalled. “I was just in a difficult place and the channels were open and the inspiration was flowing, and it happened.”
Shusterman, meanwhile, is a self-taught percussionist who toured with secular bands – the second band she joined was “three Italian Catholic boys and me” – around the US and Europe during college. She eventually found her way into what she labeled the “hipster hassid” crowd in Brooklyn, and met her hassidic husband one Succot, when she was “one step off the tour bus with purple hair and fishnet stockings, and he was one test away from becoming a rabbi.”
Just before Passover of 2010, as Wolfe was going through her second divorce, Shusterman’s husband was dying.
“I started writing music in the last days of my husband’s life,” Shusterman revealed. “Hashem [God] gives us the cure before the sickness.”
Eventually in 2011, both women found their way to Crown Heights and through luck, fate or divine intervention, were introduced to each other after Wolfe landed a gig performing at a synagogue for a women’s event, but had no one to play with.
“I by chance met someone who knew Dalia, who asked if I needed a drummer,” Wolfe recounted.
The two opened up quickly when they met each other; Perl’s divorces, Dalia’s widowhood and responsibility to her kids, both of their relative newness to music writing and the neighborhood all came tumbling out. At the end of 2011, they played their first gig together – and knew they had something special.
“We knew we needed something to give these girls [the women in the community],” Wolfe said. “We played three songs [at that first gig]. Suddenly, people were jumping and screaming; people were texting me after saying they were about to leave the event until we came on.”
Bulletproof Stockings has since been featured in The New Yorker, Vice, The Wall Street Journal and The Daily Beast, and on March 5 launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their new album. After only two days they collected over $3,600; by their April deadline, the group had surpassed their goal of $36,000 by $7,522.
And they’ve done it all while managing to perform only for almost exclusively all-female audiences.
“We’re there to let women be women. People have a hard time with that,” Wolfe continued. “We were talking about having a FAQ [section for Frequently Asked Questions] on our website – ‘Do I have to cover my hair?’ ‘Can I come if I’m a lesbian?’” Of course, being an all-female rock band isn’t the only thing that sets them apart: It’s the fact that they’re religious Jews. Their music isn’t overtly religious, although they do sing traditional songs without words, and songs in Hebrew.
“The music and the lyrics are totally inspired by Hassidism, even though it’s written in a way that’s not blatant,” explained Wolfe. “We don’t like music that’s blatant or preachy. We’re not on a religious campaign. It’s musical, it’s a rock show.”
“Religion and music are totally part and parcel to each other,” added Shusterman.
The reaction from the community, they stressed, has been 99% positive. Occasionally some prominent woman in the hassidic community will not let her daughters listen to their music, or they’ll get nasty comments on their website.
But “we’re doing this for the people who miss this type of music, or are thirsting for something more than what they get in here [in the community],” Wolfe and Shusterman affirmed.
ALL THIS can be hard for a non-Orthodox person to understand. For those brought up in the land of non-kosher food, once-in-a-while Shabbat, women who wear the pants and inter-religious dating, the idea that a rock band founded by religious Jews runs extremely counter to what many think of that community: insulated, isolated, tightly controlled – and insane.
These ideas are reinforced when stories surface every so often out of Brooklyn of rabbis being arrested for child abuse, money laundering or a host of other offenses. The lurid tales are often accompanied by images of men with black hats akimbo and swinging peyot (“sidelocks”) and tzitzit, being led into a courthouse in handcuffs, surrounded by police.
This is the impression many Jews and non-Jews have of the entire religious community – secrecy, guilt and borderline cultish brainwashing. Small wonder that those on the less-religious side of the spectrum are wont to stay away.
SHARON LANGERT, 46 and living in the heavily Orthodox community of Lakewood, New Jersey, is one woman who is attempting to bring a few more shades of subtlety to the lives of the religious.
Langert’s love of fashion and color is inspired by – not in spite of – her religious life, and she runs one of the most popular fashion blogs for modestly dressed women, targeted primarily at Jewish women.
She grew up Orthodox in Baltimore, Maryland, with parents who had chosen to come to Orthodoxy from a more secular life.
“My mother’s best friend was Orthodox, and my mother loved the beautiful warmth of Shabbat and the lifestyle,” Langert remembered. “And she loved the attitude; the way everything was handled in such a calm way with faith.”
She grew up with a frum dress style and a kosher household, something she said she struggled with greatly as a teenager.
“I always aspired to live in New York and be in the fashion world. I went to yeshiva all the way through school and I had a hard time with the school system,” she disclosed. “I always loved glamorous things.”
Langert got married at 20 and had five children by the time she was 31. Now, in her 40s, she’s a grandmother.
“My life was basically being a mom, but it was always very creative and out-of-the-box and atypical; I was always involved in charity events and planning things. Any way I could be creative, that was my antidepressant.”
An intial foray with a close friend into the world of online magazines didn’t work out, but after that failed collaboration, Langer decided to strike out on her own.
From this love of the alluring and creative, Langert’s blog, simply titled, “Fashion-Isha,” was born in January 2011.
“I wanted to show the world that you can be fabulous and still follow the [Jewish] laws. I feel like everyone needs to express their individuality and be different.”
Langert’s goal was to elevate Jewish fashion above its frumpy stereotype and make the Jewish Vogue, or “something on a high level.” At first glance, Fashion-Isha doesn’t look overtly Jewish, or even overtly religious. The colorful homepage is plastered with Langert modeling various looks, complete with accessories and shoes, appropriately modest fashion suggestions from celebrities and an occasional blog post.
“I created it so it doesn’t look like a Jewish thing, it’s for anybody and everybody,” Langert clarified. “It’s not only for Jewish people, the messages are for all women.
It’s about uniting women and also showing the world that frum woman are beautiful.”
Langert once had a dream of being a designer herself. “I came to the city, I made sketches and I had one season of my own line,” she reminisced of her short-lived fashion line, Purple by Sharon. “It was modest with a twist. I would take pieces off the runway and then make skirts longer or add sleeves.”
Purple By Sharon did well for its season, but Langert said she found she wasn’t passionate enough about the details of running the business or coordinating with manufacturers on the quality of clothes to make it work.
“And then life got complicated and it [the business] was a one-man show, but I would love to do it again. Jewish woman are looking for something beautiful and aspirational.”
For inspiration, she pointed to actresses Angelina Jolie and Sarah Jessica Parker and designer Olivia Palermo as go-tos. Palermo especially is much beloved by many Jewish bloggers for her consistently high-fashion, modest designs, she said.
Today, Fashion-Isha gets an average of 50,000 to 75,000 unique visitors every month, although in early 2015 Langert said that number had been hovering more around 150,000. She also boasts an impressive 14,300 Instagram followers and nearly 7,000 likes on Facebook.
Most of Langert’s traffic comes from Brooklyn, Long Island and New Jersey, but she also gets a lot of visitors from Israel and major Jewish communities in Chicago, Los Angeles, Australia and South Africa, and routinely receives emails from people all over the world talking about how they thought dressing modestly would be much harder.
“It is amazing how there is always a modest look to post,” Langert responded when asked if she’s ever starved for inspiration. “I’ve been able to post a look every single day. "
Even recent runway shows like Burberry, she said, were “100% modest.”
What’s the negative feedback like? Hardly a factor, she replied, despite the fact that she keeps “waiting for it.” There is a once-in-a-while jealous-sounding email or comment on a post. And there was the time she tried to put a link to Fashion-Isha on a staunchly haredi website and began receiving a lot of negative comments.
“I decided that wasn’t the place for me,” she surmised.
But the ultra-Orthodox haven’t stopped being a focus for her blog, she emphasized, especially when it comes to breaking stereotypes and creating a good impression of who Orthodox women are.
“There are many women who look ultra-Orthodox but they need an outlet, or they want to be understood and to feel like women. I’m not [judging]; I’m not trying to convert anyone. Everyone has to do things at their own level. I just put this out there and say, ‘Look what you can look like. Take it or leave it.’”