Turning 12: A Menarche Ceremony

Rosh Hodesh (New Moon) groups have been real catalysts for change among Jewish women across the U.S. Consisting, generally, of between six to twenty women, these groups meet monthly in living rooms, backyards, around woodstoves, on beaches, and in synagogues.

Historically, in traditional Judaism, Rosh Hodesh was a semi-holiday. During Biblical times, sacrifices were offered. For women, specifically, it was a day of rest during which time we refrained from traditional distaff tasks like weaving, spinning, and wick-making. We lit candles, had parties, wore new clothes, and took up collections for tzedaka (charity).

Today Rosh Hodesh groups are the spawning grounds for new liturgies and previously unaddressed life cycle occasions. New ceremonies include those for weaning, menopause, becoming a resident in a nursing home, croning (becoming an elder), divorce, fledging children from home to college, birth, miscarriage, even losing one’s virginity. The following ceremony from Montpelier, Vermont, is for menarche (getting one’s first period).

At our tiny shul (synagogue), Hannah Solin Famiglietti, age 12, agreed to be honored at a ceremony that marked the onset of her menses. Fifteen women — we’d been meeting to observe Rosh Hodesh as a festival for women for two years — sat in a circle on the white rug of the synagogue sanctuary. We are all closer to Hannah’s mother’s age than to Hannah’s age. It was the beginning of spring, Rosh Hodesh Nisan, the month of Passover.

Leader: “To begin this month we recall the time when our bodies first began marking the months. We honor the simcha (joyous occasion) menarche, and welcome our sister/ daughter, Hannah, to womanhood. As we each light a candle we will tell in turn the stories of our own first menstruations.”

Twenty to 30 years after our own first menses, we are nearly doubled over with laughter as we recall — in spectacular contrast — the pain of our original embarrassment and confusion.

After each woman tells her story and receives a blessing — “Brucha at haShechina” — we sing a song for our newest member:

Bruchot haba’ot tachat kanfey haShechina. May you be blessed beneath the wings of Shechina. Be blessed with love, be blessed with peace (song by Debbie Friedman).

Leader: “In Nisan we remember how Miriam the Prophet, after the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt across the Red Sea, led the women in a dance of celebration with tambourines.”

The mother of the maidele (young girl) of honor holds up a crescent shaped tambourine which she has decorated with symbols and inscriptions including moons, Magen David (Star of David), the date (Nisan 1, 5748), her daughter’s name, and the words: “Miriam took her timbrel out” (Exodus 15:20). The tambourine is passed around the circle. As each woman holds it she attaches a streamer and tells Hannah of a blessing that she individually has received as a Jewish woman. The blessings take the form of dayenu (it would be enough).

If I had been blessed to have ovulated and menstruated, it would have been enough. But I have also dipped in the waters of a mikvah (ritual bath)!

All sing dayenu.
If I had been blessed to have given birth, it would have been enough. But I also have sustained my child with the milk of my breasts!

All sing dayenu.
If I had been blessed to have loved a man and raised children, it would have been enough. But then I loved a woman and learned that all kinds of love are good!

All sing dayenu.
After the last dayenu, the tambourine is given to Hannah, who leads the group in dancing to “Mayim, mayim.”

Leader: “No longer will our blood be hidden as an embarrassment. We are proud to acknowledge the sign of our connection with the mysteries of life and death.”

Hannah’s mother takes a bowl of softened red clay, dips in her finger, and streaks her daughter’s face, saying, “Even the hidden parts of you are beautiful.”

Hannah recites: “Baruch atah adonay, elohenu melech ha-olam sheh assani ishah. Blessed are you, holy One of being. Mother and Father of us all, who has created me female.” She then takes the bowl, dips in her finger, and streaks the face of the next woman, continuing the assurance given and blessing received around the circle.

We end with a blessing for wine (taken from a menarche ceremony described in the November/December 1985 issue of Menorah): Brucha at, haShechina, makoret hachayim, borayt pri hagafen. Blessed are you, Shechina, source of all life, who has made the fruits of the vine sweet to our taste in the familiar color of our life giving blood.

All: L ‘chayim (To Life)!

Judith Chalmer is a freelance writer, mother of three sons in a traditional observant household, and a coleader of Rosh Hodesh celebrations in Montpelier, Vermont;

Fran Solin is a Jewish educator, mother of the maidele of honor, and a co-leader of Rosh Hodesh celebrations in Montpelier, Vermont

“I Got My Period at Pizza Hut”

Here are Hannah’s own reflections upon her ceremony:

First, I thought I didn’t want to do it, but then I said yes because they were my mother’s friends, not people I see every day. It couldn’t hurt. Also, I like surprises, though I wasn’t exactly sure if I was going to like this one! I like having attention, too, but I don’t like to admit this to people.

At first, I was terrified. I said, “Mom, I can’t do this” — it was a bigger group than I’d expected. But then, well, I liked everyone’s stories about their own first menstruation. I got comfortable and started talking.

I got my period at Pizza Hut. But menstruation, at my school, was a big secret, and no one talked about it. During the ceremony, I started talking all about this.

As the ceremony was ending, I got really happy I felt I belonged somewhere that nobody could ever take away from me. I felt I had done something right. I was proud of myself. I felt I had done something good for me, and also for the other people there. I had let the grown women go back to their childhoods; they seemed like different people to me then — not so old and sophisticated.

What I didn’t like was the part of the ceremony where we smeared the clay. It was cold and your face shriveled up. It was very weird. Everyone was laughing; it was kind of corny. I felt badly, also, that I couldn’t include my father in any of this. He works with kids and he’s good with kids. I felt like I was leaving him out.

All in all, the ceremony didn’t just center on me: we all shared, we sat in a circle. I felt a part of things, not just singled out as me.

I tutor eight to ten-year olds at the Hebrew school, and I couldn’t actually suggest to the girls to do what I did — but I can suggest that my mother talk to their mothers. Maybe some of them will choose to do this.

The tambourine I was given with all the women’s colored ribbons on it is hanging above my bed. I really like it.