In Erica Jong’s 1997 novel, Inventing Memory: A Novel of Mothers and Daughters, Sandrine slaps her daughter Sara’s face upon learning of her first period. When Sara asks her why, her mother is stymied. “Damned if I can remember,” Sandrine said. “I had to do it. My mother did it to me.”
Sandrine isn’t alone in not knowing why she slapped her daughter. The tradition isn’t Jewish, exactly (there’s no root for it in Jewish law), as it is a custom practiced by Jews who lived among cultures who also practiced it, including Greeks, Turks, and Eastern Europeans. But what does it mean? Is it a promise of the pain of womanhood? Is it a blessing, as it brings color to a girl’s cheeks? Or is it about teaching a newly menstruating girl that fertility is no picnic? In other words, a warning not to get pregnant outside of marriage.
Some feminists argue that the slap is a slap of shame: that it effectively reprimands a girl for having reached maturity, and that the family purity laws known as niddah grow out of a similar shame. What do you think? Is this a case of a harmless tradition (cue: Tevye), or a retrograde tradition that would be better left to history books and Jewish culture blogs?