When I got my period for the first time, I was prepared—a nurse had come to my Girl Scout meeting months before to show us a film and give us pads for when our “friend” arrived. But I wasn’t ready for the slap-happy reaction I got from my grandmothers and mother when they heard my news.
I remember washing my stained underwear, on that first day, putting on a pad and needing to talk to my mom who was out shopping. I lived in a three-family house packed with four generations. My grandma Tillie was on the second floor playing cards with friends so I ran up stairs to tell her. I was shocked that after grandma heard my news, she smiled and slapped me in the face.
I had never ever been hit by my grandparents or parents. “Grandma,” I asked eyes filling with tears, “Are you angry?” “No dear. My mother slapped me when I got mine and I’m sure her mom slapped her.” “But why?” I persisted. “Who knows why?” Grandma laughed.”It’s one of those old Jewish Bubbe things.”
But what was the reason, I asked.
“OK here’s a reason… the slap is just a small sample of the beating you’ll get if you fool around with boys now.”
This warning made no sense. Our nurse had discussed menstruation, not procreation. What was the connection?
“Is everything OK with Carol?” one of the card players called. “Yes, I’ll be right in,” Grandma assured her friends. And then she directed me to the third floor: “Tell my mother you got your period and ask her about the slap.” One flight up, hearing the news, my old grandma smiled and then she slapped me, too.
When I asked her why, she repeated the explanation her mother gave her. The slap was supposed to draw blood back into your body, and an added plus, she said. the slap made a girl’s cheeks rosy so she’d never need rouge. None of this made me feel better so I went down stairs to sit on the stoop and wait for my mother.
“Why do you look depressed?” Mom asked when she spotted me huddled on the stoop when she returned home. “Mom, I’ll tell you but please don’t slap me,” and when I explained, she slapped me.
Right then, I swore that if I ever had a daughter, I wouldn’t slap her. It was anti-female, antiquated, and harsh like calling your period The Curse. Well, I lied. By the time my daughter Terri got her period, I had become a superstitious worrier. I worried when I wasn’t worried enough. I didn’t want to seem like I was taking anything for granted and developed more respect for female family traditions. And to be honest, my mother threatened that if I didn’t slap Terri, she would.
I explained to Terri about the slap so it wouldn’t be a surprise. I had done research about Jewish folklore which compared the menstrual slap to telling an actor to break a leg before a performance, a way to superstitiously prevent an accident. It’s like calling a beautiful baby a meiskeit or spitting to fool the evil eye.
Mothers are traditionally very happy when their daughters begin menstruation. But the women in my family didn’t know that after the slap, it’s traditional to express thankfulness, or at least give out with a hearty “mazel tov” to mitigate the surprise slap. I explained all this to my daughter who rolled her eyes when I slapped her, mumbling something about crazy mothers.
Now, it’s my daughters turn. My grandchild Maddie will be getting her period one of these days. Will Terri continue family tradition and slap Maddie? I haven’t asked her… yet. But I feel the spirits of my great-grandma, my grandmother and mother hovering. So I’m hoping Terri will gently caress Maddie on the cheek when the time comes, altering but not breaking the chain of Jewish celebration in the cycle of fertility and the passage from girl to woman.