Sisterhood Blog

The Eastern European Fetish

By Hannah Rubin

Olga K, Eastern Eve by Sasha Rudensky

Recent studies show that only 30% of artists represented by galleries are female. This statistic is troubling, given that women comprise 80% of BFA graduates, and 60% of MFA graduates. In this series, The Sisterhood aims to shed light on this staggering gender skew in the art world. We will be interviewing different female artists, in order to discuss the way they navigate gender, sexuality, religion, family, and politics in their life and work.

Photographer Sasha Rudenksy describes her latest project, Eastern Eve, as a self-portrait, one that meditates on the fantasies of the Eastern European woman. The fascinating part? There isn’t a single self-portrait in the series.

Since emigrating to the U.S. from Moscow at the age of nine, Rudensky has spent the last two decades traveling between her two homelands. She uses her photography as a means of personally investigating the contradictions and continuities of contemporary Russian culture. Though her work defies being labeled as “feminine,” it culls from a sensibility that is distinctly gentle and yet perverse, that seeks to make photographs that are repellent and attractive. They trade in generalities, but their details establish her voice — a statue of Stalin in a hallway, a wall of faded shampoo advertisements, the surprisingly limber legs of an eleven-year old rhythmic gymnast. Each picture becomes a question, a statement, a kind of rhythmic curiosity of light, color, and form that points to a history and a future that both feel unknown. Rudensky received her BFA in Photography from Yale in 2008 and is currently an Assistant Professor of Photography at Wesleyan University.

I talked with Sasha over the course of two afternoons about her experiences with sexism as an undergraduate, her thoughts on photography as a medium, and her latest series Eastern Eve.

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Sexist Chocolate Bar Rocks Ultra-Orthodox Party

By Allison Kaplan Sommer (Haaretz)

Ultra-Orthodox women activists hoped that perhaps their time had finally come in 2015 – that they would finally be seen and heard by the parties that represent their community in the Knesset.

But just days before Israelis go to the polls, the highest-profile outreach to women by an ultra-Orthodox politician to the women of his sector involved housecleaning tips and chocolate.

It’s sad but true.

The ultra-Orthodox Yahad party, led by Eli Yishai (who broke away from the Shas party), held a campaign rally for its female supporters last week. Yahad, like all of the other ultra-Orthodox parties, not only does not include women on its list, but there are no photographs of women in their campaign posters and other materials. He is, of course, willing and eager to accept their votes, and offered them a goody to encourage them in the form of a chocolate bar. On the wrapper of the chocolate was what Yishai must have considered valuable advice for the women during the countdown to the holiday of Passover, which traditionally is associated with hardcore spring cleaning.

Printed on the wrapper: “Divide your Passover cleaning into 20 individual tasks that are easy to complete. Each time you finish one – reward yourself with square of chocolate. You’ll be amazed how, in just 20 days, how you will have finished everything and reached your goal! That’s when you’ll deserve a really big square of chocolate!”

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Female Spiritual Leader In Efrat Begins Role

By Beth Kissileff

Photograph by Sima Tuchman Freedman

Earlier this month, Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld gave the inaugural lecture for her role as “manhiga ruhanit,” a spiritual leader, to an audience of 60 people at the Mishkan Tzipora synagogue in the Zayit neighborhood of Efrat. One of the first cohort of Jewishly learned modern Orthodox women to hold public positions in Israel, Rosenfeld, 34, who immigrated from New York, has just been appointed to this newly formed role in the Israeli city of Efrat, population 10,000, by its municipal rabbi and founder, Shlomo Riskin.

Dr. Rosenfeld will be answering legal questions that those in the neighborhood wish to pose to her. Her sponsor, Rabbi Riskin was very clear about the validity of this role. “The only reason why women cannot be judges is if they are  not accepted by the people. When it is clear they are accepted and have halachic knowledge, they can  render halachic decisions,” says Rabbi Riskin. Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner, director of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership, stated that a ”major success, is having women enter what I call the great halachic conversation, ongoing development of halacha” and added “Talmudic training leads to an ever changing reality.“

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The History of Jewish Feminism in 3 Minutes

By Sarah Breger

Screenshot via Youtube

It’s no secret Jewish history has traditionally been told from a male perspective, but a new animated video depicting the development of Jewish feminist consciousness provides a different take.

Directed and narrated by singer-songwriter Michelle Citrin, the video focuses on biblical and historical figures such as Miriam the Prophet, Rabbi Regina Jonas, and Gloria Steinem and highlights the long history of women seeking empowerment in and through Judaism.

The clip is part of synagogue B’nai Jeshurun’s ‘Shout Equality’ social media campaign that encourages women (and men) to describe a “specific moment or experience when they realized gender mattered to them as Jews.”

Watch the video below:

Pulpit Plus One: Being 'Present and Pleasant'

By Julie Sugar

llustration by Lior Zaltzman

“Pulpit Plus One: The Secret Lives of Rabbis’ Husbands, Partners, and Wives” features the voices and experiences of the partners of pulpit rabbis. In these series of interviews, “Pulpit Plus One” takes an honest and lively look into the nuances of a complex role.

Dana works as a consultant to non-profit organizations. She lives on the West Coast with her husband Adam and their son. Adam is the assistant rabbi at a seven-hundred-family Conservative synagogue.

How have you felt being the partner of a pulpit rabbi?

My feelings have been a mix. At the core of it (and this sounds cheesy) I think the Jewish people are better off with Adam as a rabbi. It’s been challenging in a variety of ways, but I feel like this is what he’s meant to do: serving in this type of role, leading the Jewish people, being a visionary — this is right for him. This wasn’t something he just did because he was on a particular path; it was something he really chose to do. So overall, I’m very proud of him.

I think one of the biggest challenges for us has been that I grew up Reform. I was very actively Jewish — I was active in youth group, we had Shabbat dinners as a family Friday night. I knew I wanted to marry a Jewish person. But he is a Conservative rabbi, and so that has meant some significant lifestyle changes for me.

What was his job search like for you? I know it was a little while ago.

[chuckles] It was an interesting time for us. I was pregnant — we have an almost-four-year-old — and I think what really illustrates what that time was like is that we barely talked about the fact that we were about to have a child! Every conversation that we had, that fall and into spring, was about jobs: where were we going to live, and what kind of job was Adam going to get…it was a lot of discussion and analysis.

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Haredi Parties Embrace Taboos for Campaign Ads

By Ben Sales

Screenshot via Youtube

(JTA) —In an Israeli campaign ad released Monday, a secular Israeli husband and wife stress about housing prices, until a member of Knesset pops onto their iPhone screen, touting his party’s economic policies and accomplishments.

It’s a common trope in this campaign — where voters’ top concern, according to polls, is Israel’s high cost of living.

The surprise? That ad, and others like it, came from United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazi haredi Orthodox party. UTJ is backed by some of Israel’s most traditionalist haredi rabbis — the same rabbis who vehemently discourage smartphone use and whose press organs airbrush women from photos.

UTJ’s polls usually rise and fall with its fiercely loyal haredi voter base. In 2013, the party won a plurality of Jerusalem’s vote due to turnout in the city’s haredi neighborhoods. This year, the party is making a play for non-haredi votes — complete with a Facebook page — by emphasizing its progressive policies on issues like affordable housing and subsidized daycare. Their slogan this campaign is “socioeconomic legislation isn’t a trend — it’s a mitzvah!”

That campaign, apparently, also allows the party to ease haredi restrictions on women’s appearances and smartphone use.

UTJ includes no women candidates in its slate, and leading haredi newspapers have famously airbrushed leaders like Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel from photos. But a woman — albeit in a long skirt and long sleeves — plays opposite a man in the party’s ads.

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Introducing 'Pulpit Plus One'

By Julie Sugar

llustration by Lior Zaltzman

I moved to Nashville in July with my husband Aaron, when he was hired as an assistant rabbi and teacher. “Have you met Julie, the new rabbi’s wife?” is how I’m commonly introduced.

It’s interesting to be in a position that’s not a position at all. I wasn’t hired, and I wasn’t technically interviewed — and yet of course I was interviewed! When Aaron was flown out for interview weekends, I was flown out too.

At one particularly intense interview weekend, when we were still engaged, a congregant asked me if I was going to wear a sheitel after getting married. “No, I don’t think so,” I replied, not wanting to dismiss the idea entirely, but also knowing it was very unlikely. “We’ve never had a rebbetzin [rabbi’s wife] who doesn’t wear a sheitel,” replied the congregant. “I don’t know what to tell you,” I said…because I didn’t.

We landed in a great place, and I feel very lucky. I also am utterly fascinated by the role — real and perceived — of the “rabbi’s wife”, or husband, or partner. Because it can be invested with expectations, and because the role is quite new for me personally, I’m curious to explore what it means (and doesn’t mean) for others in a similar situation.

Pulpit Plus One: The Secret Lives of Rabbis’ Husbands, Partners, and Wives will be, I hope, an honest and lively look at communal leadership from the leaders who are often neither hired or compensated. The interviews will also include those who have opted-out of the very idea of being leaders by association.

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Letting Women In the Kitchen

By Tiki Krakowski

Avivit Ravia, one of two female kosher supervisors for Hashgacha Pratit, visits Carousela restaurant. Photograph by Naomi Zeveloff.

There is a black and white photograph that my grandmother took of my great-grandmother hanging in my mother’s house and in the houses of all of my great-grandmother’s descendants. In it, my great-grandmother is standing at her kitchen table, her head covered in a kerchief, rolling out a piece of dough. The light from a nearby window falls on her roughened hands, illuminating her work. My grandmother has always complained that she wished she had captured the light framing her mother’s face as opposed to her hands, but I have always loved that detail. After all, according to family lore, my great-grandmother ruled from the kitchen. My grandfather, who spent almost all of his married life living in an apartment under hers, used to say, “above me is my mother-in-law, above her is only God.”

Jewish women have always had a strong role in the kitchen, in fact one could say that the kitchen was their domain, but this has not always been recognized in the professional sphere. Until recently, women could not serve as mashgichot [kashrut supervisors] under the Rabbinate in Israel. Over the past few years, however, this has begun to change.

I first met Hemda Shalom in a program meant to help women open their own culinary businesses. The program was a social incubator of sorts — the idea being that for many women, cooking is something that can be monetized even in the absence of other professional skills. Quick to laugh, Hemda is a tall, stately woman. She always has glint in her eye; she’s always cooking up some scheme, eager and ready to start on a new adventure. She was finishing the program as I was starting, so we did not know each other well, but it’s hard to be around her and not be caught up in her contagious energy. About a month ago, I ran into her again in the Machne Yehuda Market. When I asked her what she was doing with herself nowadays, she replied that she was working as kashrut supervisor. My interest was immediately piqued. So last week, I sat down to talk to her about working as a female kashrut supervisor and the alternative kashrut organization she works for.

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Tallying Inequality in the Art World

By Hannah Rubin

Final Fantasy installation by Micol Hebron, 2007

Recent studies show that only 30% of artists represented by galleries are female. In this series, The Sisterhood aims to shed light on this staggering gender disparity. We will be interviewing different female artists, in order discuss the way they navigate gender, sexuality, religion, family, and politics in their life and work.

Micol Hebron has no problem speaking out against the patriarchy. And in her latest art project, Gallery Tally, that is exactly what she is doing. But, this time, she the numbers to prove it.

Gallery Tally, which began in 2013, is a collaborative art project that invites artists all over the world to calculate and visualize the gender ratios at top contemporary art galleries. As of this point, over 300 artists have been involved and roughly 500 art posters — each one spotlighting the statistics at a specific art gallery — have been made. The poster for L.A.’s Blum and Poe Gallery features a detailed pencil drawing of Miley Cyrus twerking against Robin Thicke, with the caption “89% men.” Mark Moore Gallery’s poster is a collaged fruit stand, where bananas represent men and peaches represent women. There are 23 bananas and 8 peaches. These posters speak for the main message of the project: when it comes to the art world, there isn’t much space for women.

Photo by Safi Alia Shabaik
Hannah Rubin

According to Gallery Tally’s research, approximately 80% of BA and BFA graduates are female, and approximately 60% of MFA graduates are female. Yet, only 30% of artists represented by galleries are female. According to further data collected by Hebron, between the years of 2011 and 2014, women’s artwork at the nation’s top auction houses was sold at 12 cents to the dollar, as compared to men’s work.

No stranger at poking fun at herself, Hebron has been channeling her frustrations about gender inequities into her art for over a decade. Whether she is doing this through a series of fifty glitter paintings, or taking portraits of people chewing bubble gum, depends on the day, and the project. When she speaks, her voice sparkles with authority — commanding attention and respect both while cracking jokes and waxing philosophical.

Over the course of two afternoons, Micol Hebron and I talked at length about her experiences with sexism in the Fine Arts World, the wild fire success of Gallery Tally, and how feminism can be more than just a social media trend.

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How I Learned to Love Queen Esther

By Sarah Rudolph

llustration by Lior Zaltzman

I remember when I first realized I didn’t understand Esther — possibly, didn’t even like her.

It was Shabbat afternoon and a group of us were reading over the text of the megillah with a woman from my Orthodox synagogue in St. Louis. I was in junior high, with several years of Queen Esther costumes behind me, and the idea of her as a major heroine was firmly ingrained.

Until I actually read her story.

After all, what do we know about Esther? She has little distinguishable personality and is described as simply following Mordechai’s orders, “just like when he was raising her.” (2:20) She somehow pleases everyone, whether despite or because of her passivity, throughout the process of “auditioning” and winning the crown. But none of that struck me as particularly worthy of calling someone a hero and role model.

Even when she was told of the threat to her nation, it apparently didn’t occur to her that, as queen, she might be in the best position to take action. And even when Mordechai pointed out the obvious, she still resisted. (What a choice of when and how to finally assert herself!) What was it that finally convinced her? Fear, apparently: “If you do nothing, you won’t survive either!” (paraphrasing 4:13-14)

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Bibi the 'Mansplainer'

By Ron Kampeas

(JTA) — Is Bibi a mansplainer?

Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, all but said so after Netanyahu’s Congress speech Tuesday:

“As one who values the U.S. – Israel relationship, and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the Prime Minister’s speech,” she said. “Saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5 +1 nations, and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, “mansplainer” has been in the lexicon for at least six years; this Urban Dictionary definition dates from 2009:

To explain in a patronizing manner, assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening. The mansplainer is often shocked and hurt when their mansplanation is not taken as absolute fact, criticized or even rejected altogether.

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Ending An Ancient Jewish 'Spitting' Rite In Israel

By Judy Maltz (Haaretz)

Halitza shoe in the Bata Shoe Museum/Wikicommons

Responding to numerous complaints from women, a religious advocacy group in Israel is urging the Chief Rabbinate to regulate an obscure Jewish “spitting” rite.

The rite in question, performed in the Orthodox community, is known as “Halitza” and is required of women who have been widowed with no children and who wish to remarry. In ancient times, the brother of the deceased husband was required to marry the widow. The “Halitza” rite frees him of that obligation. In the ceremony, the woman removes or loosens her brother-in-law’s shoe and then spits in his direction to indicate her disgust with his refusal to marry her. She then recites the following words: “So shall be done to a man who refuses to build up his brother’s house.”

According to ITIM, a non-profit that advocates on behalf of individuals facing obstacles under Israeli religious law, about 20-25 women a year in Israel are subjected to this rite. Should they remarry without participating in the rite, according to Jewish law, their children would be considered bastards and cannot marry in a religious ceremony.

“In the past year, we’ve received a number of phone calls from women who felt uncomfortable and humiliated while participating in this rite, and for that reason, we’ve drafted proposals to regulate it,” Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and director of ITIM, told Haaretz.

The proposals were purposely submitted to coincide with International Agunah Day, which falls tomorrow on the Fast of Esther. Agunot are Jewish women who are “chained” to their marriages, in most cases because their husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce. Widows whose brothers-in-law refuse to “release” them through the Halitza rite are also considered Agunot of sorts.

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A Havana Love Story for Purim

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

Nothing in Brooklyn could rival the formal dances in Havana at the Patronato de la Communidad Hebreo de Cuba. And nothing in the world could rival the exquisite Purim Ball of 1954 at the Patronato. Although my nineteen-year old mother was not selected as the Queen Esther of the ball that night, she was one of Esther’s four attendants — a very high honor for a girl whose father couldn’t afford to buy the title for her. It was also the night she fell in love with Manuel. She was wearing a black sleeveless velvet gown that her mother made for her, the neckline studded with tiny, starry rhinestones.


Falling in love with Manuel was fated, she thought. Not three weeks earlier, my mother tripped on the University of Havana’s famous stone staircase that fanned down to the street. She limped to the university clinic where a handsome doctor had dressed her scraped knee. Here he was again at the Purim Ball.

My mother has always believed in signs more than she believes in God.


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International Agunah Day Solves Nothing

By Susan Weiss

Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz), Carmel (Menashe Noy) and Elisha (Simon Abkarian) in GETT. Courtesy of Music Box Films

Purim is this week. I hope to join a women’s reading of the Megillah (Scroll of Esther). I like hearing women’s voices in the synagogue, center-stage. I admire Queen Vashti’s nerve, even though she does get her head chopped off. And I wonder about Queen Esther. After all, she sleeps with the enemy.

But I don’t look forward to International Agunah day, the day before Purim, on the Fast of Esther. That’s the day that Jewish women (and others) have designated to protest the (on-going) plight of Jewish women stuck in bad marriages, agunot. Though I have dedicated much of my adult life to helping agunot, I am tired of the endless finger-wagging at, and rallying against, the wrong target — “bad” husbands or “incompetent” rabbis. Oh sure there are bad husbands and incompetent rabbis, but they are not the reason that we Jewish women, especially those of us living in Israel, find ourselves in this relentless quagmire. Nor is it the reason that other women living under religious laws find themselves in similar predicaments.

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Fifty Shades, Secrets and Cervical Fluid

By Rebecca Honig Friedman

As the executive producer of The Salon, it is my privilege each month to bring together fascinating, accomplished, and brilliant Jewish women — including our host, the editor-in-chief of The Forward, Jane Eisner, and our co-host, Rachel Sklar, founder of and Change the Ratio — to share their insights and observations about the issues of the day. It’s not often, however, that the discussion turns to erotic spanking, orgasms and cervical fluid. In fact, it’s never gone to any of those places before this month’s episode.

Blame it on “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

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How the Fast of Esther Became International Agunah Day

By Rachel Levmore

Image by Jeff Belmonte, via Wikimedia Commons

They say that history repeats itself. They say that human nature never changes. They say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. All these phrases which do or do not express common wisdoms do actually come together when examining the connection between Ta’anit Esther (the fast of Queen Esther which is commemorated the day before Purim on the 13th of Adar) and International Agunah day which was set to fall on the same day (this year March 4th).

What then is the meaning of having International Agunah Day on the same day that Ta’anit Esther is observed? The key to the answer lies with the woman (as do many of today’s dilemmas within Judaism). Or perhaps more accurately — the untenable situation in which the Jewish woman finds herself through no fault of her own.

The commonality between the woman who was Queen Esther and the woman who is a modern-day agunah exists on two levels—the aspect of her distress and the nature of her salvation.

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Queer Jewish Women Need to Create Their Own Spaces

By A.J. Campbell

Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

In a recent piece on The Sisterhood, J.E. Reich writes that there is a lack of safe spaces for queer Jewish women particularly in New York City. She attributes this to silence of the mainstream community to create space for us. I disagree with the idea that we need Jewish organizations to open the door to us.

We need to open our own doors.

Reich makes the point that the mainstream Jewish organization are in need of better tools and resources for LGBTQ inclusion. I don’t believe that change will happen even with the best toolbox. If you want to feel included in an organization, you have to join it. Queer Jewish women need to show up and keep showing up. We can’t wait for the doors to be opened, we have to go out and open them.  

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A Journey of Recovery From Eating Disorders

By Dorri Olds

Courtesy of Stacey Prussman

Eating disorders are not confined to race, sex or religion, and with the stigma of mental illness making so many sufferers unwilling to admit to eating disorders, it is harder still to reach out and help.

The Jewish community may be just as susceptible to such eating disorders as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa as the rest of the world, and no amount of sheltering by family can truly shut out the prevalent social pressures to be perfect and thin. Though very few studies have examined the rate of eating disorders among Jewish communities, there are a rising number of cases. Food plays a prominent part in Jewish culture and many religious holidays involve food during celebrations, in addition to the weekly Sabbath meal.

Brooklynite Stacey Prussman, a 44-year-old Jewish comedian-actress who speaks on eating disorders at campuses nationwide, said she doesn’t get stage fright: “No. I get life fright.”

At age 10, Prussman auditioned to play Annie in the Broadway musical of the same name, but an agent told her, “You need to lose weight.” She was put on a strict diet, and the next 15 years were filled with cockamamie attempts at weight loss, including pill ingestion, starvation and extreme exercise. The result? Depression, anxiety and bulimia. After being sent to an emergency room, Prussman was told she had an eating disorder. The realities of her condition finally sank in and inspired Prussman to fight for her recovery. Now she speaks to help prevent others from going down the same self-destructive path.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting, with 86% reporting the onset of an eating disorder by the age of 20. Campus Activities Magazine named Prussman one of 2014’s Hot Speakers for reaching out directly to these women to tell her story with humor and brutal honesty. The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Prussman to hear about her arduous journey to recovery.

Dorri Olds: Can you describe your eating disorder?

Stacey Prussman: I would exercise every day for three hours and try to count calories as I was exercising. The technical term for that is “exercise bulimia.” I ended up gaining 35 pounds in my freshman year. I was eating and wearing sweat pants and baggy clothes.

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Chocolate Wars and the 'Angry Mizrachi Woman'

By Sara Hirschhorn

Screenshot via Youtube

Getting between a woman and her chocolate is a dangerous proposition. Although not usually one that causes a brawl, as occurred on an Israir flight from Tel Aviv over the weekend. It was classic Israeli misbehavior caught on video, with irate passengers demanding life, liberty, and the best of duty-free confectionary. Yet, “chocolategate” is more than the “ugly Israeli” abroad — if Israeli life is like a box of chocolates, this was a sticky mix of gender, class, race and the nation at 10,000 feet.

According to reports, three intoxicated Israeli passengers boarded a Friday flight to Bulgaria. As flight crew began duty-free service in the front of the cabin, a woman stood up in her seat, screaming with self-entitlement, “You work for me, I paid for my flight, I want my chocolate [now]!” Her sister then added, “sell her the chocolate, you piece of garbage, what is she, an Arab?” As the two women hurled expletives and racist statements, the woman’s husband made violent threats and attempted to assault the steward, roaring, “I don’t give a s–t about you or Varna. F–k your mother, you a–hole!” as he was restrained by staff. While threatened to be thrown off the flight, they landed peacefully — if, needless to say, without their duty-free chocolate box.

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WATCH: Postpartum: The Musical

By Sarah Breger

HelloFlo is back. The company that perviously gave us “Camp Gyno” returns with a new video ad, this time about the horrors of new motherhood.

In the clip, a new mom rehearses a Broadway show reveling the “terrifying abyss of motherhood” and featuring songs about cracked nipples with lines like “For what it’s worth: There’s no laughter after after-birth.”

The ad introduces HelloFlo’s new mom kit (which includes necessities nipple cream, breast pads, Luna bars).

“As a mom of 2 young children who had a c-section and a VBAC (vaginal birth after c-section) I can honestly say that I’ve personally experienced everything that Mira, our main character, sings and talks about,” writes HelloFlo Founder and CEO Naama Bloom introducing the new service.

Free idea: A more fitting title would be “Birth Control.”

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