Earlier this summer, my sister and I went to see the absolutely delightful “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” In the car on the way home, in between figuring out how we were going to tell our mother we made the egregious error of seeing the movie without her, we reminisced about the first times we got our period, like the titular character.
I’ve been getting my period for 19 years. If my period were a person, she would have already celebrated her bat mitzvah and Sweet 16 and is almost old enough to switch to alcoholic Shirley Temples. I know I have many more years of uterine lining to shed in my lifetime. But despite the almost two decades of cramps, skin breakouts and cries over my messy bun not being quite messy enough, no period has stuck out to me more than the very first one.
Like Margaret, I spent the early days of summer in middle school with nervous anticipation and jitters over heading away to summer camp and experiencing a changing body. My first period particularly sticks out not just because of the sheer novelty that it was the first one, but because it came just a little over a week into my very first summer at sleepaway camp. When I told my camp director I got my period, she slapped me in the face. Because Judaism. Apparently.
Let me set the scene: I returned to my bunk after a day of activities and went to take my allotted faster-than-you-can-say-shower camp shower. Upon pulling down my underwear, I found a brownish-red stain. My first thought was I sat in paint during arts and crafts and it somehow seeped through my pants, but I realized that probably made no sense. I went to my counselor and showed her the mysterious marking, and she told me I had gotten my period and took my stunned self to the infirmary.
Ironically, in the days before I left for camp, my mother had packed me with some pads and taught me how to use them, “just in case.” But I figured I wouldn’t need them — I was only 11! I hadn’t even finished the “American Girl” book yet. (IYKYK.)
On the way to the infirmary, I saw my camp director, who upon learning I got my period (we’re Jews, we tell everyone everything), slapped me in the face. A light slap. An excited slap with an accompanying “mazel tov!” Nothing to take legal action over. But a slap nonetheless. I don’t remember how I reacted (because really, how does one react upon sharing big news and getting immediately hit in the face without warning?) but I remember thinking, in whichever way it manifested in my 11-year-old brain, “uh, what the fuck?”
The nurse offered me whatever candy I wanted to — quite literally — soften the blow and let me call my mom from the landline, even though our one phone call of the summer wasn’t coming up for another week (we weren’t allowed to have our cell phones at camp). Luckily, my mom answered a call from an unknown number (can you imagine?) and when she said hello, I immediately burst into tears.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, alarmed.
“I got my period,” I blubbered in response. At some point as she comforted me, she asked if someone slapped me.
I learned it was just a thing Jewish mothers — or, in this case, camp mothers — did.
In the phone call I recently made to corroborate this story, my mother reiterated at least four times she would not have slapped me if it had happened at home, so I am writing that here for posterity. She also said her mother didn’t partake in the tradition, but she acknowledged it was something many other Jewish women did.
According to the Forward, as with many Jewish customs like breaking a glass under the chuppah, there is no real consensus on where the “menstrual slap” came from or what it is meant to symbolize. Some say that it’s to bring a quick rush of blood to the face, pulling it away from the lower abdomen and relieving a potentially heavy flows, wrote Tracy Puhl of GladRags. For Ritualwell, Rabbi Goldie Milgram wrote, “some say that upon bringing blood to her daughter’s cheeks, the mother would then give her a blessing for health and fertility, and a warning to guard her ‘gates’ against premarital entry.” (I’m guessing that’s not exactly what my camp director was going for.) On Ritualwell’s page about first menstruation, the introduction notes, “Many Jewish women recall being slapped across the face by their mothers when they began to menstruate. Whatever the explanation of this ritual, it has surely outlived its usefulness, if ever it had any.” In her column, Milgram suggested a bubble bath with soothing salts as an alternative, which sounds much better to me.
Other sources, like this article from Chabad, debunk the idea entirely that it is a Jewish custom at all. The tradition isn’t rooted in Jewish law or even entirely Jewish, writes Chanel Dubofsky for JTA, as it is a custom practiced by Jews who lived among cultures who also practiced it, including Greeks, Turks and Eastern Europeans.
Wherever the tradition came from, I don’t think I will be participating in the future should I have a child who menstruates. It may have made for a memorable first period in my case, but as “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” so deftly illustrates, being initiated into the club of menstruators is bound to be a pivotal moment in one’s life regardless. A verbal “mazel tov” and a comforting pint of Ben & Jerry’s should do the trick just fine.