The first time I got my period, my mother slapped me across the face.
Actually, it was more of a firm tap, but it was enough of a departure from our usually loving exchange for me to ask her what was going on. She told me that it was an old Jewish custom – a minhag in Hebrew – one that her mother had carried out with much more fervor. However, beyond that she knew nothing substantive.
Perhaps its original purpose was to slap sense into a newly fertile girl, warning her not to disgrace the family by becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Possibly it was to awaken her out of her childhood slumber and into her role as Jewish woman. I asked my mother for the folkloric reasoning behind such a custom, but was only given a blank expression and shrugged shoulders for a response.
Although I was spared the full force of the ritual, I still regarded the custom as violent, even barbaric. Was slapping a young woman after her first menarche experience a religiously sanctioned practice or part of some old, backwoods schtetl (Jewish village) tradition – one passed down along with the silver candlesticks and the prayer shawls.
While many rabbis have assured me that this slapping custom is not in accordance with Jewish law, or halakhah, it is nevertheless a tradition that has been well guarded and nurtured in one form or another for generations. Perhaps the slapping custom – as I have come to call it – may not haven been taught in Hebrew schools or synagogue sermons, but it has nevertheless affected many Jewish women’s lives. Is slapping our women as much of a rite of passage into adulthood as a boy’s Bar Mitzvah? Does slapping a young woman serve a purpose now that girls are allowed to be Bat Mitzvahed as well? I ask because, in spite of our modernity, we continue to slap one another.
I suppose I should be grateful. At least my religious culture doesn’t practice infibulation or clicteredectomies.
Even so, a slap – as in any brutal act – brings about shame and humiliation. Why should we equate those emotions with our bodies and our lifeblood?
Our blood. From menarche to maternity, from maternity to menopause, the blood that flows from our wombs on down between our legs represents the psycho-physiological marker of women’s lives. Our pagan sisters eloquently depict these symbols in the female archetypes: Maiden, Mother, and Crone.
The new religions – and the more radical branches of traditional ones – understand that blood is more than a brown stain on our underwear. It is our bodies’ way of signaling to our hearts and minds to stop for a moment, to rest and honor the passage of time in which we currently reside. We must regard our blood – its inception and its cessation – as sacred because it represents not only life’s entrance and exit into this mortal sphere, but our blood embodies the metaphysical stage of womanhood in which we are inhabiting and, hopefully, celebrating at present.
My first menarche was even more significant to me than my Bat Mitzvah because my body was the sole judge of my entrance into womanhood – not the two men over sixty (the rabbi and cantor) who proclaimed after my Torah reading I was now a woman in the eyes of God. I remember standing in front of the congregation feeling completely embarrassed and awkward because, in my mind’s eye, I was still very much a child. However, by the time I got my period six months later, I was more confident with my pending adolescence and my changing body. I – unlike many of my peers – actually loved my expanding hips and developing curves. This was what being a woman was all about to me. And while I was not yet a woman, I certainly no longer felt as if I was a little girl. My body was perfectly aligned with my psyche in proclaiming this next stage of my whole development – and my body signaled me boldly through blood.
Some Jewish women were not slapped. Their mothers told them that they would not have to endure such a ridiculous ritual. Although they were spared the skin exchange, many were still taught to regard their bodies, their fertility, and their blood as shameful and potentially evil.
I shared my story – via a women’s studies listserv – and asked for others to bestow their experiences. Writer Marge Piercy told me that while her mother had refused to slap her (as her grandmother had done to her mother), she still made her burn her sanitary napkins in the alley after use. She also kept Piercy away from fermenting wine and rising dough because she believed that a menstruating women would turn the wine sour and keep the bread from rising.
In Kate Simon’s memoir, Bronx Primitive, her mother slapped her in order to ward off the evil eye. This, in spite of her mother liberalism demonstrated by sending Simon to college during an era when this was considered unorthodox.
Associate Professor, Kathleen J. Wininger, from the University of Southern Maine, was slapped by her Jewish Rumanian grandmother after she announced the arrival of her first period. “Years later when I was filming my mother for a documentary I was making about mothers and daughters I asked her about this distressing occurrence. In almost extreme close-up and what appeared to be some sort of cerebral pain, she thought and thought. Finally, her face lit up and I was about to receive the answer I had long been curious about. With tremendous enthusiasm she replied: “I DON’T KNOW!” She went on to say something close to the effect of: Is it a custom, a superstition, is it for good luck? Don’t ask me why you get slapped? YOU JUST DO!”
I also received an email from American sociologist, Maxine Craig, who is currently living in Papua New Guinea. She told me that amongst the Simbu people in PNG, it is customary for them to build menstrual huts for their women. The hut is not meant to marginalize the polluted, she explained. Rather, the menstrual hut is more of a positive woman’s space and also a place to have a break from their usual workload.
As for me, I gave birth to my first child – a beautiful daughter named Hunter Victoria – almost ten months ago. Now I must ask myself an even more crucial question than the origins of the slapping custom.
My answer is no, of course not. However, I will tell her my story and that of my mother and some shared by the other women I have encountered. And the point of my story will partially be about the way a woman’s body can be ill regarded – even by its possessor. I will also stress to her not fall into the assembly line of conformity- especially one that alienates her from any aspect of herself, even if it is disguised in socio-religious ritual. Always question the intention behind the act because by performing a ritual – no matter how half-hearted – you give it your power – and women hold immeasurable power through our knowledge, our words and lastly, our blood. We should only channel that power into customs and rituals that honor us correctly.
I am fortunate that my religion has changed with the times, thanks to the Jewish Renewal movement mostly. Perhaps enough women got slapped and were sick of being part of a religious culture that did not respect all aspects of their women selves. Conceivably after Hunter’s first menarche, I will take her to our Jewish Renewal rabbi and we will celebrate her body instead of demonizing it.
Maybe I will expand my own worldview and borrow from the best of all cultures, while keeping my own as my foundation. I think I will start by building her a menstrual hut in the backyard. That way, when she is ready, she will come to me and we will enter the hut together. We will honor her next phase of life – and perhaps make a couple of s’mores sandwiches and giggle by a homemade campfire late into the night.
And there will no longer be any form of violence in our heritage.
Then one day, after her daughters are grown and raising their own girls, they will continue this celebratory cycle and not even realize that what they regard as tradition was once considered revolutionary.
By: Caren Appel-Slingbaum
Caren Appel-Slingbaum is currently working as Administrator for the National Endowment for the Humanities- Summer Institute on Disability Studies at San Francisco State University. She is also working towards her Ph.D. in American Women’s History. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and baby daughter.