Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

May 11, 2016 by

“My Transition to Womanhood Left Only a Smarting Handprint on My Cheek”

Flickr.com, Bruna Schenkel.

Flickr.com, Bruna Schenkel

As maiden voyages to Israel go, mine was more or less typical. My family toured and ate falafel and crisscrossed the country, stopping one afternoon in the Old City of Yafo. It was there the trip diverged from the ordinary. While the rest of our tour group shopped for artwork and souvenirs, I got my first period.

Though my body ached, my entire being was elated. My cycle—newly minted in no place other than the Jewish homeland, a powerful omen if I ever heard one—belonged entirely to me. I didn’t have to share it. I didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to keep it. Still, I’d been caught off guard without supplies and needed my mother’s help.

The moment she entered the W.C., she slapped me. I shouted in my head, and my shock and anger made their way into the narrow space between us, like mortar setting two stones. We stood so close together in the small space that an onlooker might have mistaken the proximity for an embrace. 

I wanted answers. That it warded off the evil eye was not enough. Yet all my mother could offer was this: Grandma had slapped her, Bubbe had slapped Grandma, and the tradition hailed back to the shtetl, if not to wherever we lived before we settled in the Pale. Only later did I learn this hazing ceremony was not our family’s alone. 

When my mother left the bathroom, I gasped for air like a diver emerging from the sea. I glanced in the mirror, disappointed not to see a more sophisticated version of myself staring back at me. But my transition to womanhood had left no mark other than a chink in my mother love and a fading handprint. 

To my relief, my reappearance in the gallery registered with no one. My cheek burned, and a part of me worried it would never heal, that I would never be able to forgive its deliverer. I maneuvered through the crowd, slipping among the shoppers to select a souvenir for my best friend.

I followed my parents’ voices into another room, where they huddled together with the artist to admire a striking pewter music box. Its stained glass doors opened to reveal a bride and groom beneath the chuppah, “Fiddler on the Roof” playing in the background.

The scene surprised me. For starters, my mother was an artist in her own right, who created everything that adorned our home, so this kind of an investment would be a first. On a practical level, I couldn’t imagine they’d want to schlepp the heavy, fragile piece around for the remainder of the trip. I reasoned they were caught up in the emotional throes of our first visit to Israel. But, in fact, they saw my rite of passage as a heavenly nod to buy it. In no time, they said, I would be standing under a wedding canopy, too. 

Resentment winded me like a second slap. What happened is mine, I insisted under my breath. It felt like an expropriation, a theft. With pomp and enthusiasm, they bought the music box anyway. My father carried it, now swaddled like an infant, out into the Mediterranean sun, while I fell back, listening to the hypnotic clomping of my new sandals on the cobblestones. I caught a glimpse of the sea and let the salty air fill my lungs until our bus pulled away and the port disappeared from view.                                                  

For the next three decades, the music box hung in the living room of my childhood home. My mother treasured and dusted it, even as she suffered through my tumultuous teenage years and the disintegration of her marriage to my father. I cannot say how often she turned the key to play it, but she wed my stepfather in its shadow under a chuppah in the same room. 

I long ago forgave her for the slap, but I never forgot it. It swirls around in the recesses of my mind, making an occasional tongue-in-cheek appearance when another woman shares a similar experience. It is intertwined with memories of our trip, and I cannot look at the music box without recalling what happened in the W.C. of a gallery in Old Yafo.

When I married, I stood under the chuppah with my husband and prayed for daughters. I wanted to tie their hair with ribbons and sit with them in a pew at shul and watch them lovingly pick their favorites from my brooch collection in my golden years. 

Because none of this ever came to pass—my blessings are all sons—it is easy to believe I would have held my hand, that I would have embraced my daughters in the moment of their menarche instead. And yet, I worry that tradition is often reflexive, wrapped so tightly around our DNA we cannot shake it as much as we try. The slap had, after all, survived geo-political shifts, pogroms, trans-Atlantic migration, and generation after generation of strong-willed women on my mother’s side.

By giving me only boys, G-d was just setting things right. 

Today, the music box hangs in our dining room. I never asked for it, yet it was a given that it would one day be mine. Still, it startled me when it arrived, passed along when my mother and stepfather downsized. For more than a year, I could not adjust to its presence here, nor could we figure out how to safely mount it on the wall. I kept it beneath layers of bubble wrap in a cabinet, swaddled as it was on the day we first took it home from that gallery decades ago.

It is a novelty to peer inside and to play the music, but I have yet to decide if I find it beautiful. It is enough, though, for me to know it hangs there—a gift from my mother, a story from our past. When I look at it now, I see forgiveness. And when I open it, I catch a whiff of the sea and a gentle breeze, that tiny bit of my soul living beyond its doors.  


  • Rebecca K.

    One of the most interesting aspects of the story is how you portray your feelings – then and now – about the event, but because of how thoroughly you described the scene, we get a glimpse of her feelings, too…and they were so clearly different from yours. Which makes me wonder – do some people not mind getting “the slap?” Because, I think I would have reacted like you did if that had happened to me.

    • Mari Stachenfeld

      What I saw when I read it in both rooms–the bathroom and the artist selling room–is a tremendous amount of generational misunderstanding, which led to the anger in you, the writer. I see a generation, your mom’s, wrapped in the old ways and not really aware of your feelings.I too would have been stunned and enraged by that slap; luckily, for all my mother’s other entwinements with her father’s religious past, she read a lot of psychology books in college and after and so was gentle when I began my menarche.