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(Read a later comment on slapping at the bottom of the page.)
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Leer la versión en español de los siguientes temas: Anticoncepción y religión, Breve reseña - Olor - Religión y menstruación - Seguridad de productos para la menstruación.

The Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health

The Tradition of Slapping Our Daughters

By Caren Appel-Slingbaum
(Leer la versión en español traducido por María García)

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 a 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 Mitzvah'ed 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 [which has a strong tradition in many cultures]. This, in spite of her mother's liberalism demonstrated by sending Simon to college during an era when this was considered unorthodox.

Associate Professor Kathleen J. Wininger, of 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 there, 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.

Will I slap, or tap, her after her first menarche?

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 to 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 world view 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 símores 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.


* an Ashkenazic - central and eastern Europe - custom

** the cutting and sometimes removing of parts of the vulva, sewing shut the entrance to the vagina, and removing the clitoris, practiced by some cultures today

*** Some cultures do treat menstruating women as polluted and to be segregated in menstrual huts. Read Prof. Sally Price's comments about her years-long experience in Suriname, South America.

© 2000 Caren Appel-Slingbaum

Caren Appel-Slingbaum is currently working as Administrator for the National Endowment for the Humanities's Summer Institute on Disability Studies at San Francisco State University, U.S.A. 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.

An e-mailer wrote in November 2005:

[I]t's not only Ashkenazic Jews [Jews from central and eastern Europe] who have/had the custom of slapping girls in the face at menarche. It's an old Slavic custom, although in Slavic tradition it was the father and not the mother who did the slapping. I suspect the Ashkenazic custom derives from that, although among Jews it would have to be a woman doing the slapping because of the laws of niddah.
My Slavic mother, who converted to Judaism, never slapped me, nor was she slapped by her father, but she was the one who originally told me about this custom. As it was explained to me, the purpose of the slapping (at least among Slavs) was to bring a rush of blood to the girl's face and thus to keep her from bleeding excessively at the lower end of her torso. I've observed during extensive travels through Eastern Europe, mostly in small towns and rural areas, that there are a lot of Slavic folk customs are quite similar to those of Ashkenazic Jews, so this explanation makes at least as much sense as any other, if not more, considering that as far as I know there isn't a belief about menstrual "uncleanliness" among Slavs (Christian or Pagan) which compares to that in traditional Jewish belief and practice.

E-mail, February 2007:

Having only recently read the article, by Caren Appel-Slingbaum, about the slapping of Jewish girls by their mothers upon menstruating for the first time, I would just like to add that this was done to me by my mother. My mother, who is of Polish origin, told me that she did this because she never wanted me to lose color in my face (ie. never be pale). Presumably, the slapping process retains a healthy color on our faces. My mother's handprint on my face cheek disappeared rather quickly, and I am still always pale. Thank goodness for blush make-up. And so much for this tradition which I am happy to report ends with me as I will not do likewise to my daughter!
Great article.

More about menstruation and Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity -
menstrual huts - Mikvah (ritual bath for Orthodox Jews) - menstrual myths
(Read a later comment on slapping at the bottom of the page.)
See Midol newspaper ads, 1911-1961 - Midol ads (magazine): 1938, 1939, 1948, 1960
See Kurb, Midol's competitor from Kotex.
Midol booklet (selections), 1959

© 2007 Harry Finley. It is illegal to reproduce or
distribute any of the work on this Web site in
any manner or medium without written permission of the
author. Please report suspected violations to
See also Australian douche ad (ca. 1900) - Fresca douche powder (U.S.A.) (date ?) - Kotique douche liquid ad, 1974 (U.S.A.) - Liasan (1) genital wash ad, 1980s (Germany) - Liasan (2) genital wash ad, 1980s (Germany) - Lysol douche liquid ad, 1928 (U.S.A.) - Lysol douche liquid ad, 1948 (U.S.A.) - Marvel douche liquid ad, 1928 (U.S.A.) - Midol menstrual pain pill ad, 1938 (U.S.A.) - Midol booklet (selections), 1959 (U.S.A.) - Mum deodorant cream ad, 1926 (U.S.A.) - Myzone menstrual pain pills ad, 1952 (Australia) - Pristeen genital spray ad, 1969 (U.S.A.) - Spalt pain tablets, 1936 (Germany) - Vionell genital spray ad, 1970, with Cheryl Tiegs (Germany) - Zonite douche liquid ad, 1928 (U.S.A.)
The Perils of Vaginal Douching (essay by Luci Capo Rome) - the odor page