By Karen Gerwin
When I told my mother I got my period for the very first time, she slapped me across the face and shouted, “Mazel Tov!” It wasn’t a punishment slap — more like the way you’d slap a person who fainted, or something out of the Marx Brothers — and it didn’t feel violent.
I don’t remember the moment in great detail, and I don’t remember it as something terrible that happened to me. I mostly remember knowing that it was part of long-standing tradition from shtetl times, passed down from Jewish mother to Jewish daughter, the purpose (supposedly) being to bring the color back to your face (because it’s all draining out through your vagina now!). It’s possible I even knew it was coming, that it was something we discussed in advance — probably with all of my female relatives! — as I eagerly awaited the big day.
And yes, I so desperately wanted my period, because at 14, it felt like ALL OF MY FRIENDS had theirs, and I was on the outside of this magical club, where everybody bonds over leaks and pads and cramps and notes to get out of gym class. I mean, who doesn’t want all of that?! The gym class part, anyway.
But back to the slap. When I mentioned the slap around a table of non-Jewish friends recently, they were all pretty universally shocked. What the hell kind of tradition is this? According this piece in The Jewish Daily Forward, nobody knows exactly how this all got started, and there are various explanations, the same way there are several explanations why we break glass at the end of a Jewish wedding. Though I don’t remember it as traumatic, there are many who do, and go even so far as to call it barbaric.
Naturally, I had to ask my lady friends on Facebook if any of them had endured this unusual ritual. Several replied along the lines of “Fuck no,” and quite a few others wrote, “Yes! WTF?!!” Some have already carried on the tradition with their own teenaged daughters.
A male friend wrote that he period-slapped his sister on behalf of the family because it happened when they were at summer camp.
My mother left a comment that she also period-slapped all four of her female dogs, and my sister said that after my mom slapped her, I slapped her, too. I give major side-eye to both of them on both of those claims, especially my sister. When I asked if I really did that, she replied, “I don’t know, but it would make a good story.”
Which is kind of what the period-slap is all about, I think.
I’ll admit, I don’t think the period-slap is all that terrible. There’s something inherently comic and slapstick-y about a slap. I’m talking Cher slapping Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck — snap out of it! — or the Slap Bet episodes in How I Met Your Mother. Still, will I do it to my own daughter? I decided to go straight to my 10-year-old source.
On the walk home from school, after plying her with Pinkberry, I told her about this crazy family tradition. I told her my mother did it to me, and her mother did it to her, and so on. I told her if we did it, I wouldn’t slap her hard, that it would be more symbolic, but that it was entirely up to her whether we kept it going for another generation.
Friends, there was a lot of giggling. Followed by mimicking of getting a pain in her lower belly and shouting, “Mom, I think something’s happening!” and more giggling. Endless giggling. She grabbed my hand and attempted to see what a slap from me would feel like, and I pulled it away quickly, “poo-poo-poo, you can’t do these things unless it’s really the time to do them, it’s bad luck!” Which means I really am turning into my own mother.
I asked her again if she thought we should do it when her time comes, and she slapped herself a few times and said she didn’t know. She reached out for my hand and we walked quietly up the block, when suddenly, she punched me hard in the arm and yelled, “Punchbuggy white, no punchbacks!”
So, yeah. She’s totally getting slapped.