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

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.  

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