Over brunch on the Upper East Side, a new acquaintance looks into my eyes and asks, “Is it OK to say, like, congratulations on getting away from all that?”
I’ve just told her about my Hasidic upbringing, about leaving the community and the husband I married at 19. Every time I share this with someone new, it feels like I’ve dropped a grenade into the center of our conversation.
“Of course!” I say. “Thank you so much.” I keep it simple. The blast of my disclosure has already filled up the space in the room.
Walking home, I think about my new acquaintance spending her young adulthood in a college dorm. While she was rushing a sorority, I was embedded into an entirely different circle of women. Instead of dressing up for frat parties, mine sat in prayer groups and exchanged numbers for local wig stylists.
I got married in 2004. Someone named Britney kept showing up on the cover of magazines in the supermarket checkout lines, flashing her tan stomach while I chose to keep my eyes on my own calf-length skirt. I’d just moved to Lakewood, New Jersey, with a man with whom I had shared six formal dates and then a wedding.
The presence of the largest American yeshiva (a religious college where Bible study was the only subject) and the low real estate prices meant that Lakewood was a hub for young, vibrant, God-fearing couples like us. The identical beige townhouses were filled with black-hatted husbands and modestly dressed wives who agreed to follow laws such as keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and the one newest to me: observing family purity.
It was a system designed to protect our relationship; we agreed to touch each other only during the “clean” days of each month, and to abstain from touch each month for the length of my menstrual period, plus for seven blood-free days afterward.
During the months before my wedding, my bridal teacher had taught me to swipe a square white cloth inside my vagina twice on each of my clean days. But weeks after my wedding, on day six of my seven clean days, I hit a complication. There was a splotch on my tissue in the morning light. I wasn’t sure whether the stain was big enough to require that I start counting my seven clean days all over again.
Sighing, I scrawled my husband’s phone number on the outside of an envelope, placed my tissue inside, and dropped it in the mailbox of the rabbi who would hold my specimen up to the daylight, scrutinize the edges of the blood stains, and call my husband.
But the rabbi was unable to rule on the blood without more information, information that must come from my physical body. “There is a lady for these situations,” he said, and then gave us a phone number.
“Mammele, do you usually bleed like this?”
The woman held a tissue up, drops of my blood smeared on the dull white cloth. I held onto the sides of what seemed like a makeshift gynecologic exam table in the middle of her husband’s study.
My bare feet were in the stirrups, as instructed, my skirt pulled up to my waist, my vagina on the other side of a floral yellow sheet. In the eight weeks since my marriage, it had been penetrated by a man’s naked part for the very first time, then a doctor’s speculum and a white linen cloth four inches square, and now the woman’s fingers.
I, however, was instructed never to touch myself, unless it was before going in a ritual bath. Then I was to inspect every crevice of my body in front of a full-length mirror, checking for loose hairs or bits of fluffy tissue. I re-read my bridal class notes every week, determined to get it all right.
“No. I mean, I don’t know,” I said to the woman’s headscarf, bowed below my waist. Her sharp fingers poked inside me, but my gratitude was so much greater than the discomfort.
Please make me pure, I begged the One Above, as I pushed the stiff brown bangs of my wig back from my hot face. I thought about my mother and my four older sisters, all of whom kept small white squares for the inspection of their own menstrual blood in their bedside tables. I wished they could be with me, holding my hand and telling me whether the blood we shared was prone to leaking out of us in between periods.
I had been taught to keep those matters private, though, just between husband, wife, and essential rabbinic personnel.
“I will call the rabbi for you, Mammele,” she said, a phone propped between her ear and shoulder. I heard God’s trusted servant talk to the rabbi about the shade of my blood, the amount of it. I tried to sit up, but she motioned me back down.
I wondered if her husband used the study at night, if he smelled the trepidation of the women who had been there during the day, legs splayed in the middle of the room, his wife’s head between them. I wondered if she washed the sheet. I also wondered when it would be appropriate to put my vagina away, but as I watched her write the rabbi’s words on a scrap of paper, I remembered what we both knew.
My body no longer belonged to me.
“Kosher!” she said, a smile breaking up her worried face for the first time in our encounter. “You may continue to count your seven days!”
“What did the rabbi say?” I asked, sitting up, folding the sheet behind my thighs.
She was already shuffling the papers together, shoving them into a drawer. She turned back toward me, looked at my face as if she had forgotten it had been there the whole time.
“It was blood from the outside area, from some little shaving cuts or something, but it is not menstrual blood.” I was allowed to shave, but I swallowed a flicker of embarrassment for having indulged in a practice that would put my day count in question.
But I was clean! Relief hit me. I could serve God now, and my husband.
When she left the room so I could “put myself together,” I heard her through the curtain, soothing a baby. I hoped that God was watching my devotion, that He would bless me with a house filled with children of my own very soon.
Thirteen years later, after birthing two children, divorcing my first husband, then marrying and divorcing a second Jewish man, I realized I would never be able to relax near a naked male body. The dreams I had of women weren’t going away. I couldn’t pray it away. I couldn’t even marry it away.
And more: I could no longer believe in a God who would demand sacrifices of flesh and heart.
I moved out of the shtetl, to New York City, where I shucked the fear and self-loathing and dated women out in the open, sharing passionate kisses on city streets.
In the nearly two decades after that woman took time out of her busy day to inspect my blood and deem me pure, I saw the shape of her kindness come through the hands and hearts of other women. It was delivered in platters of home-cooked pastries, baskets of onesies for my babies, and phone calls to see how I am feeling from women I barely know. But the thick rope of that kindness began to fray as I changed, as I slowly snuck one toe at a time outside of my closet doors.
I know I will never again meet a woman and undergo a pro bono ritualistic vaginal exam in her living room within minutes of saying hello. Mostly, that is really excellent news.
But a small part of me, underneath the broken section of my heart, will miss that forever. I miss the ability to skip the preamble with someone who has been on the same exact wavelength since birth. I miss operating in sync with a platoon of people marching toward a clear vision of heaven.
Sometimes, I even miss having my blood flow onto the same cloths that my sisters use, that my mother, and grandmother, and her mother used, too. By leaving the rituals and rules, the white examination cloths and the pro bono exams, I left all of them behind, too. The people.
As I walk along the East River in rainbow-striped workout pants, I think about the way I ended the conversation with my very sweet and thoughtful acquaintance at brunch. It has been habitual, since I left the enclave, my careful shuttering of myself. I smile and nod and say I’m fine, even when I feel the echo of loneliness in my entire being.
The “congratulations” offered to me over this morning’s cafe table hovers in my mind and, for a moment, I want to turn around, walk back, give the celebratory word right back. I want to be honest, for once, and say that congratulations, while a generous sentiment, is too shiny for what I have experienced.
I am not sure what response phrase can encompass all of it, but it’s something more textured, like my natural, loose hair waving in the breeze. Something like: I wish gentleness for you ― and for all who have loved you.
Dr. Sara Glass is a psychotherapist, speaker, and writer in NYC. She has published pieces in The New York Times, The Daily News, and Psychology Today. Her memoir, “Kissing Girls on Shabbat,” is in publication with Simon & Schuster, with a scheduled release date in June 2024. You can follow her on Instagram @drsaraglass.