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“Who has Made Me Woman”

The ways we are

My earliest recollection of having strong feelings about menstruation was that horrible movie put out by Tampax. The physiological changes were mentioned, along with a handy demonstration of how to use a sanitary-napkin and belt (remember those things?). I thought it was all rather gross.

Nearly a year later, I got my period. I came home and told my mother, not knowing what to expect. Upon hearing the news, my mother explained that when she got her period, her mother slapped her hard and said, “Welcome to the pain of being a woman!’ But she wouldn’t do that to me, oh no, she was a modern woman. She kissed me, and then gave me a little slap (a “love potch” she called it) just for tradition’s sake.

Through the years, I have had my ups and downs with my monthly cycle. I have, had cramps or no cramps, felt blue, felt erotic; I have felt impatient and wished it would be over (like the time I got my period suddenly on my honeymoon). But I have never felt nothing.

Menstruation has always been a sign for me: of my body working or “not working” of a miraculous inner system, of being female. I go to the mikvah (ritual bath) each month, not as an Orthodox Jew, not so I may be “kosher” to resume relations with my husband, but as a woman saying goodbye to a regular part of myself. I never feel dirty or the need to be cleaned at the end of my cycle; I do, however, feel a need to realign myself to the state of not menstruating. I pay attention to my cycle: its presence has been reassuring (think of all those anxious college nights…) and its absence was the first sign — an almost spiritual one — I received when I was trying to become pregnant and was successful.

Because I have learned to count the days and months by my own body, I have never understood why the Jewish tradition — such an essential part of my being — did not have a bracha (blessing) for this regular monthly event. Can it be that men were not able to imagine such a blessing and thus never composed one? Can it be we had such a blessing passed by mother to daughter which has been lost? Have women always felt ambivalent about menstruation and thus never risen up to bless it, even in private, even among only ourselves, even within the traditional concept of tzniut (modesty)? Should we take our society’s attempt to neuter the experience with deodorized pads and feminine sprays as normative? I cannot accept this neglect, and neither can my body, which is tied inexorably with my Jewish soul.

I began searching for a bracha for menstruation years ago when in rabbinical school. We feminists, aggravated about the blessing men are enjoined to say each morning — “she-lo asani ishah” “Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has not made me a woman!’ Apologists for the tradition tried to convince us that this blessing is not denigrating to women, that it only thanks God for the privilege of the burden of doing mitzvot (commandments) from which women are freed. But for most of us, the blessing continues to leave us as outsiders, as “other!’ as part of a caste system in which we are legally on the bottom, along with slaves, minors and the mentally incompetent.

Eventually, I realized that this troublesome prayer could be reappropriated and given feminist meaning. So now, each month, at the time I see I have gotten my period, I cover my head and say, “Baruch atah Adonai, elohainu melech ha-olam, she-asani ishah” “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the world, who has made me a woman!’ (Although I have up until now used the traditional Hebrew which refers to God in the masculine, I am experimenting with various feminist revisions.)

Sometimes I say it only to myself; sometimes I say it with my husband in the room, and he answers “Amen!’ It is a wonderful moment. I have welcomed my body’s natural order back. While I was trying to get pregnant, it was a sad moment, a moment of recognition that this was not to be the month, a time of quiet — or even angry — acceptance. (But our tradition says blessings even at hearing of a death of a loved one; blessings are not only for joy.)

Now that I have just had my first child, I resume reciting the bracha with bittersweet emotion. It means I’m no longer nursing full-time because my period has returned; it signals the end of the magical time of pregnancy and nursing in my life; it reinforces the reality of return to more ordinary rhythms.

For me, there is a poetry in blessing the Source of Life for making me one more partner in the creation of life, or of recognizing, in the case of infertility, the creative and numberless ways we must all find to be partners with the Creating One in creation. It is always a revolutionary moment, too, as I realize that the slightest change in wording (changing the negative “who has NOT made me a woman” into the positive “who has made me a woman”) affirms my own sanctity, despite societal negativity.

I wish my mother had thought of this when I was twelve. In fact, I wish our tradition had thought of this centuries ago. But it didn’t, so we must think it up ourselves. Maybe some will add the lighting of a candle or the drinking of wine. Maybe some will wear a special piece of jewelry or create a whole ceremony. How beautiful it will be when we can identify positively, spiritually and Jewishly with our God-given cycles of lifeblood.

Elyse Goldstein is the rabbi of Temple Beth David in Canton, a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts