January 29, 2004
Menopause Goes Mainstream
After years of being talked about in hushed tones as "the change of life" -- or not being talked about at all -- menopause is now in the spotlight. Two recent plays, "Is it Hot in Here ... Or Is it Me?" and "Menopause the Musical" literally put menopause center stage. A support group at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centers, called "Red Hot Mamas," is part of a nationwide program. There's even a World Menopause Day.
So it's no surprise that the topic is also being explored in a Jewish context as women increasingly look to their tradition for meaningful ways to mark this transition.
"Jewish tradition has been silent for a lot of years about menopause and other biological passages that women go through, and the losses and stresses that these passages represent," said Rabbi Debra Orenstein, spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana.
"In the last 25 to 30 years, we've begun to fill in some of these gaps. Menopause touches on getting older, on loss of fertility, on mortality and femininity. Judaism has a lot to teach about these themes."
Using Jewish sources and existing traditions, rituals have been created to recognize menopause as well as childbirth, abortion, miscarriage, retirement and a host of other biological milestones and significant life events that have not traditionally been formally acknowledged. While many women are creating their own ceremonies, an increasing number of books provide suggested formulas and inspirational readings. Ceremonies can range from a simple blessing to an elaborate seder.
"Many menopause rituals draw on Pesach metaphors, and many use mikvah. There are also menopause prayers based on new moon blessings and tkhines [Yiddish women's prayers]," noted Orenstein, who edited "Lifecycles Volume 1: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones" (Jewish Lights Pub, 1998). Examples of seder-based ceremonies can be found on the Web site Ritualwell.org. One incorporates expanded meanings of such Pesach symbols as the four cups of wine, the four questions, the shank bone and matzah.
Regarding the middle matzah, author Shoshana Silberman writes, "One section will stand for a part of me that is gone. The other section will stand for what lies ahead. These parts will be united at the end of my journey."
Other ceremonies focus on the mikvah.
"More and more women are discovering the mikvah as part of marking -- of moving from one stage of their lives to another," said Penelope Oppenheimer, supervisor of the Rabbinical Assembly's mikvah at the University of Judaism. "Mikvah represents the womb of the Jewish people. So when you come to the mikvah you're actually being reborn, which opens itself up to the idea that you are emerging into a new self. It isn't a matter of losing things, but of going toward something that's new and exciting and different ... and that has worth as a Jewish experience."
In addition to ceremonies around Passover and the mikvah, women are creating their own Jewish interpretations. Speech therapist Linda Kaufman created and participated in a midlife ritual along with five other women as part of a class at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, N.Y.
"We looked at the roles we'd played up to this point in our lives, and what we wanted to commit ourselves to [now]," Kaufman said. "I thought it was transforming."
As a result of her experience, she helped start a Lifecycles Havurah for women at Makom Ohr Shalom.
So why has it taken this long for Judaism to recognize such integral moments of women's lives? Both Oppenheimer and Orenstein agree that pointing to a patriarchal society is too simplistic. Oppenheimer says the lack of rituals around menopause may have resulted from the "inherent value of modesty at a time when menopause was considered a very private matter."
Orenstein noted that menopause is a relatively modern phenomenon. Women continued to have children throughout their lives, which were much shorter in ancient days. But in our time, the lack of recognition of such events as miscarriage or menopause has caused many women to suffer in silence.
"Making ritual available takes away any aspect of shame," Orenstein said.
She believes that rituals for these occasions "provide a communal way to address" such major life transitions.
Orenstein said there is no "standard" menopause ritual at this time because it hasn't had time to evolve. By contrast, naming ceremonies for girls have been occurring much longer and versions are offered by the Reconstructionist, Conservative and Reform movements.
"It wasn't until the 1998 edition that the Conservative rabbi's manual offered a full-blown ceremony for naming a baby girl, as well as prayers for grieving miscarriage and stillbirth," Orenstein said. "My hope is that the next edition will include prayers for [getting older] and menopause, too."
In the meantime, she said, women who sit down to create their own rituals learn about and forge a stronger link with their tradition. And that's something worth celebrating.