Esther Cohen is arts and events consultant for Jewish Currents and writes a daily poem at her website,esthercohen.com.
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by Esther Cohen
For Part II of Bobst, click here.
(Several people have written me, privately, so as not to have their questions appear in public. Is this story true? they asked. How true is it? All good stories are true. This one too, though many details are not. How will I know what to believe? asked a reader. True doesn’t matter much if the story is good enough.)
RIVKA, in a context bigger than Rivka: Some say the 8th century was when the Jews really began: the Litvaks. Lithuania became home to a large and influential Jewish community that was almost entirely eliminated during the Holocaust. Before World War II, the Lithuanian Jewish population was some 160,000, about 7 percent of the total population. Vilnius (then Wilno in the Second Polish Republic) had a Jewish community of nearly 100,000, about 45% of the city's total population There were over 110 synagogues and ten yeshivas in Vilnius alone.
The Litvaks came from Babylonia, from Palestine, from the Ukraine, from Poland, even from Germany. Most of them spoke Yiddish.
Most of them are gone now. About 2,000 Jews were counted in Lithuania during the last big census.
Rivka herself was not a person who seemed curious about her past. Many aren’t, because they live in the present, because life is never more than now. She was not a storyteller, so if anyone tells her story, I will. She was born a Lithuanian Jew in a shtetl, observant the way most Lithuanian Jews were then, Orthodox even. She knew the names of some famous rabbis. Like Rabbi Eliyahu, or Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, called the Gaon (Genius) of Vilna. He was perceived as an authentic representative of Lithuanian Jewry, with all the characteristics and qualities commonly associated with Lithuanian Jewry. Anti-Hasidic, he even encouraged study of mathematics and science, and did many translations into Yiddish, and Hebrew.
But what about Rivka, our heroine here? She was not a scholar, nor was she particularly interested in scholarship of any kind. A relative I met for the first time a few years ago told me she was pretty. Not beautiful. Pretty. In the way of a 14 year old girl. Her eyes and skin were clear. Young good looks required no effort, and of course, she took them for granted. She was soft looking with rounded edges and curves. The daughter of Rayzel and Moshe, Rivka was destined for marriage, for children, for carp in the bathtub that would become gefilte fish. She was programmed to observe without question or thought, for children, four or five or six, and a house that was clean, for Friday night meals with a chicken and sweet dessert, for a life that would be called GOOD in a book that mattered, and for a certain kind of devotion. Not to the future, but to what came before. What did that mean for her life?
One day Rivka arrived at Ellis Island on a boat. At last our story begins.