Bloody Bat Mitzvah

My bat mitzvah was about me and period poverty, just the way I wanted it. You might be confused as to how those things go together, but to me, the “you’re a woman!” moment and becoming a Jewish adult are intimately connected. There comes a time in a Jewish girl’s life for a ceremony to help her step into Jewish adulthood and embark on her own spiritual journey, a religious milestone/huge party: a bat mitzvah. This is known to some as the beginning of a lifetime of obligation. To others, it’s a life cycle event and a chance to party. (Now you’ll notice some similarities between having your period and having your bat mitzvah.) To the family who has to organize it, it can be the tortuous event that requires an insane amount of planning and finalizing the million little details that seem to pop up at any moment and crawl into your mind like a million little fire ants, burning and itching until the event is finally over and you can breathe a sigh of relief. It was that time in my life, and I was determined to make it the best it could be, to harness the power of the fire ants and not to get too burnt by the process. 

I knew from the start that there were certain elements I had less control over; there are always aspects that are for the guests rather than the celebrants. I definitely wasn’t going to drink the coffee!  But I also knew from the start that if my guests were going to travel world-wide to be a part of such a momentous occasion that I would remember forever, I was going to give them something to remember forever too. I wanted them to understand who I am and what’s important to me, and hopefully leave having learned something and been a bit inspired. So I centered a detail that was central to everyone’s experience: the centerpieces. 

Sure, I could have gone with flowers, if I were okay pretending the environmental impacts didn’t exist, and pretending it wasn’t sad they would shrivel up and die, and pretending that it wasn’t a huge waste of money and nature to buy an inordinate amount of flowers that could not be reused. But I was never that good at pretending, because the world is too big and has too much to give to waste time being subtle about what you want. And it soon became clear that what I wanted was a little different than simply the classic (or basic, depending on how you want to frame it) b’nei mitzvah centerpieces. 

They absolutely had to be reusable: items we could donate after the event, something others would benefit from in a meaningful way. They had to be something that was also significant to me, with a purpose that was more than just random items on a table, pretty as they might be. We talked about various options: donatable canned goods, or school supplies, or maybe (another issue close to my heart) used books.  But I wanted something deeply connected to the event itself. That’s how my guests came to sit down at tables and be greeted with buckets of menstrual pads. Well, not just buckets, there was some tissue paper wrapping the pads themselves, and ribbons tying everything up nicely, and of course some glitter involved. But (hopefully) none of that distracted from the pads and the point of them: to draw attention to period poverty and period stigma, and to combat it. 

Some people may have been shocked to see these items so up in their faces, so near to their food (a little tampon with your kugel?) but that was precisely what I wanted to address. Why shouldn’t part of Judaism be about access to basic health products and normalizing the conversation around them? After all, a huge percentage of our Jewish community are cis women, trans men, or non-binary people who have blood on their underwear once a month. And we should get our panties in a twist about the way many people don’t have access to these supplies.  We should notice that we aren’t talking about it. Because the truth of the matter is, yes, menstruation is inconvenient, and awkward, and sometimes messy.  It also helps us procreate; it’s a part of who we are; Jewishly, it can have great meaning. Anything we can do to make it less inconvenient (even just talking about it), less challenging, more comfortable, and maybe even joyous is not an optional good deed, but our responsibility. And let’s be honest: the truth of the double standard (let’s just call it patriarchy) is that if this happened to men once a month they would be hailed for it. They’d chat about it comfortably and without shame. Menstrual products would be free and available everywhere. So why is our blood (gross but normal) and the problems surrounding it such a secret? 

As a girl who is lucky enough to have access to information and supplies for my period, it’s my job to help other girls and women who don’t have as much as me. So together, my mom and I faced this process head on (my dad joined in by making a lot of “I just go with the flow” jokes). We decided against having a centerpiece company put the buckets together because (in addition to being more complicated and expensive) that would make it something we handed off to others to complete. It would make it too business-like, too transactional, too impersonal, when at the core, periods – period products, period poverty, period stigma – are so deeply personal. Instead, we made them ourselves, along with my younger sister. It was probably messier that way, but the blood is messy, and it was okay for my centerpieces to be messy too. 

In the end, it was all very on theme (purple: purple was the whole theme) and accomplished my goal of fighting the stigma around periods and talking about them with the card taped to each bucket, a description taken from the Greater Philadelphia Diaper Bank’s website, reading:

“Like diapers, period supplies are an unmet basic need. Too many women and girls living in poverty are unable to access the basic products required to manage their menstrual health. 1 in 4 women have struggled to purchase period supplies in the past year due to lack of income. We believe every woman and girl deserves to participate fully in their daily lives. No one should have to miss work or school because it’s “that time of the month”. We believe that all women and girls deserve to be comfortable, clean and healthy.” [The Greater Philadelphia Diaper Bank]

And then we added: 

“The items in this centerpiece will be donated to the Greater Philadelphia Diaper Bank to combat period poverty.

The Diaper Bank’s website lays out all this and more, a definite help as who can better describe their mission better than the organization itself? We wouldn’t be encouraging the guests to talk about periods if they didn’t know what was in the buckets (and we sure didn’t want them poking around in the centerpieces). I had called the Diaper Bank, along with a number of other wonderful organizations in Philadelphia that donate menstrual supplies, to find out what they needed. The Diaper Bank directed me to the urgency of menstrual pads in particular, as it was young women whose needs were most dire, and they did not often use tampons. I chose to donate to the Diaper Bank rather than other places, such as homeless shelters, because of its focus on not just providing these essential products, but also fighting period poverty and period stigma as a whole. Sure, you might say, but not many teenagers need diapers, so why a Diaper Bank? That is entirely due to the fantastic program the Diaper Bank runs, “The Cycle – Period Supplies.” This program gathers period products, organizes them into “Period Packs,” and distributes them throughout high schools. I loved this direct outreach approach to both educating and making sure menstruating people, especially young ones, have what they need to live comfortably. 

I hope my centerpieces helped some people, but the fight isn’t over yet. Luckily, we won’t forget about it due to our monthly reminder. Without access to supplies (or even with) the blood can sometimes make us feel small and weak and insignificant. So talk to someone about it. Periods aren’t shameful. That needs to be repeated over and over until everyone gets the point. I repeat that for the girls who came before me and the girls who will come after me, but most of all for myself. I am strong and powerful and not insignificant. Which is why it was so fitting to step into being a Jewish adult while I stepped into the version of me ready to talk about these issues. And to make my bat mitzvah most reflective of my commitments, I needed the people around me to talk about it too. I was thrilled to bring menstruation to my bat mitzvah, because the only shame is those who don’t have the supplies they need. Period.