Chanan Maister has gone two years without ever seeing his wife Elisheva, the cellist for the band Bulletproof Stockings, perform live.
"It would be really cool to see her perform in front of packed crowds and whatnot, but not being able to doesn't really bother me that much," he told me yesterday in an email a few hours before the band's first-ever club gig, at Arlene's Grocery on the Lower East Side of New York City.
Bulletproof Stockings is an all-female band, and their show at Arlene's, they'd announced earlier this week, was closed to men. The Maisters, like the other members of the band, are observant members of Brooklyn's large Hasidic Jewish community; Elisheva and her bandmates have been playing all-woman gigs in the Hasidic community for more than two years, catering mostly to the hipster-Hasid crowd that's sprung up in Crown Heights.
Chanan hasn't been to any of the gigs—and wasn't going to be at Arlene's Grocery last night—because of kol isha, a modesty principle that says observant Jewish men can't listen to a woman sing. "I guess it was never really an option. I was raised not to listen to women singing, and that's just the way it is," he wrote. And then, wistfully, a couple minutes later: "Would it be too much to ask you for some pictures of the show?"
There would be plenty, as it turned out. "The media vultures are spazzing out, man," the tattooed, rockabilly-pompadoured door guy at Arlene's Grocery told me when I arrived last night. He was being pressed on every side by news cameras, lined up on the sidewalk in front of Arlene's. The line to get inside was spilling out the door and down the ramp, and the bar at the front of the house was packed so tight it was hard to move: Women in long glossy wigs were crammed in next to women in black lipstick, women in tank tops with bra straps showing, women in headscarves and long sleeves next to women in jeans. Metallica's Ride the Lightning was blaring over the speakers. Almost no one was drinking.
"Guys are not liking it," singer/keyboardist Perl Wolfe told the crowd when the band took the stage, all—cello, violin, guitar, drums, and keyboard—dressed in head-to-toe black. This is a bit of an understatement: The announcement that men would not be allowed at the show had hit the Men's Rights anti-feminist wing of the internet hard. "Misandry is real," a wounded-sounding dude wrote on the group's Facebook page. And another: "If you're a man, don't bother... feminist duplicity and driving further inequality is all this group cares for now."
"I think they just really want to hear us live," Wolfe said, shaking her long honey-brown wig away from her face and grinning a little. An approving roar went up from the audience. Drummer Dalia Shusterman started thumping out a heavy beat on the kick-drum, and the scarved and wigged women in the room went crazy.
For the Orthodox women packing out Arlene's, the band's first gig in a secular space felt like a big, big deal. "They're elevating the Creator," a beaming woman named Alona told me. She's a "laughter yoga leader" in Crown Heights. "The Rebbe said the merit of righteous women is what will redeem the world." "The Rebbe" is Menachem Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement to which the band, and many of the women in the room, belong. Some of them believe Schneerson, who died in 1994, was the Messiah, and that someday he'll return.
A TV camera swept in close; they're filming for a new show on the Oxygen network called "Living Different." Nearby, a lady in a long black skirt grinned and threw double metal horns towards the stage.
"This one's called 'Homeland Call Stomp,'" Wolfe announced. Another cheer. The music is moody and atmospheric, driven by a piano melodies that sounded a bit like Fiona Apple. At times, it got a little repetitive. The Orthodox women in the room seemed to know every word to every song. An hour in, some of the secular women in the room started to look a little sleepy.
Midway through the show, during a song called "Frigid City" a kiss-off to a bad husband and a cold city, the headbanging started. Wigs began whipping towards the stage, along with several heads of dark curls. The floor shook delicately. The band kicked into their version of a nigun, a wordless Hasidic melody, and a mosh pit of sorts opened up—a group of women took each other's hands and started spinning around in a circle, a slightly unholy hora. Two non-Orthodox women nearly got hit in the eye with flying hair and had to step back.
"Go ahead, rock out!" Wolfe shouted from the stage. The audience obliged.
At the end of the set—after an encore of "Frigid City"—Wolfe and Shusterman, who have done most of the band's press, were mobbed with fans. The Oxygen cameras followed their every move, lingering on Wolfe's tall spike heels. The rest of the band quietly packed up and disappeared into the crowd.
A slightly drunk Orthodox woman with a flower in her hair wandered up to the tough-looking lady at the door who'd been taking money and checking wristbands.
"Can we stay for the next band?" she asked.
"Sure, honey," the tough woman said. "It's not going to be only women in here, though."
The Orthodox woman tossed her head. "That's just for men," she said, with a little smirk. "We can listen to anybody."