For Sisterhood contributor Elissa Strauss, a recent panel discussion on marketing embarrassing products to women brought to mind an episode of the 1990s sitcom “Blossom,” in which the title character gets her period for the first time — and celebrates the occasion with her family, over Chinese food. For me, the discussion recalled the so-called “menstrual slap” — the Jewish minhag, or custom, of slapping your daughter across the face on the occasion of her first period.
My parents weren’t ones for corporal punishment, but my mom did deliver a swift slap when I told her news — and proceeded to plead with her not to tell dad, because that would be way … too … embarrassing. When I asked her what I did to deserve the slap, she said something to the effect of “That’s what nanny did when it happened to me. That’s just what Jewish mothers do.”
As with so many Jewish customs — breaking a glass under the chuppah, for example — there are myriad explanations, and no real consensus.
Rabbi Goldie Milgram, in this Ritualwell column explains: “[S]ome say that upon bringing blood to her daughter’s cheek, the mother would then give her a blessing for health and fertility and a warning to guard her ‘gates’ against premarital entry.”
In their book “Menstrual Health in Women’s Lives,” Alice J. Dan, Linda L. Lewis provided some other common theories about the menstrual slap; the book’s editors reported hearing such explanations as my mother’s own “This is just something we do” and the more distressing, “Remember, a woman’s life is filled with pain.”
Back in the 1970s, Paula Weideger, author of “Menstruation and Menopause,” posited that Judaism’s customary slap, whatever the justification, perpetuated the notion of menstruation as taboo. As if speaking about menstruation is somehow transgressive — worthy of the same slap across the face that a child might receive for bad behavior.
Caren Appel-Slingbaum writes of her own negative associations with the menstrual slap, calling the practice in this column “violent, even barbaric.” She continues:
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?
As I experienced it, the menstrual slap was neither humiliating nor traumatic. (Celebrating the occasion with my family, over Chinese food, would have probably been more humiliating.) And the slap certainly wasn’t anything remotely on par with the type of female genital cutting that Appel-Slingbaum references.
What it was, and continues to be, is perplexing. Did any other Sisterhood readers experience the slap? If so, what was your mother’s explanation for the custom, and what was your own reaction to it?