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
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IMAGINE an ordinary girl. What she looks like. Not tall, not short. And what she says, when we finally hear what’s on her mind. She is a practical talker: food, for instance. What she ate and what she intends to eat, a little later. A girl of 14 or 15, born in a shtetl in Lithuania, a place called Bobst, always told what it was she had to do. A timid enough girl, soft and young, very suddenly sent to live in another country. To make a life. This girl was Jewish, from a family that understood Jewish to mean Follower of Laws. And the other side of Jewish, too: persecuted, disliked, eternally wary. Some Lithuanian Jews, different from this description, became Important People in the World. Abba Eban, a diplomat who left Lithuania for South Africa, and then Israel. Or Amos Oz, who wrote books about characters that were not law followers. Not Rivka, however.
Grandmother Rivka was a simple girl.
We don’t normally tell stories of ordinary people, wanting our characters, heroes and heroines, to do what we cannot: acts of indescribable will, passionate choices and movements in the direction of courage, always courage. And as for relatives, we want them to have exhibited some piece of remarkable knowledge. Insight, maybe, or will. Many of us speak of our ancestors as though they were wildly different from us. Brave, always brave.
That we are most of us familiar, descending from ordinariness for many generations, is not the subject of fiction. Non-fiction either. People walk into rooms with aplomb, with intention, with a determination to get what they want once they’re there.
So here’s the beginning of what happened with Rivka. Uncle Label the Communist met her at the boat. A hearty man, ample and taller than most shtetl men, he greeted her with his whole body, surrounding her with himself. Crazy Label, her mother called him. Label was her mother’s older brother. Always a rebel, he’d worked with the communists in Lithuania, but soon saw he had to leave. And leave he did, finding work at a garment factory, living in a tenement on the Lower East Side, on Division Street, a fifth-floor walk-up. Outgoing, curious, he met a woman on the shop floor, Lithuanian too, and he married her in two weeks time. Now he lived with his wife Sophie and their baby son Max. They shared the apartment with another couple and their baby. A sheet divided the space they inhabited.
Rivka traveled alone, and didn’t talk much to anyone. Still really a child, she was unaccustomed to taking care of herself, making decisions. Most of the ride, she’d been nauseous, too frightened to talk. A family offered to share their meals with her, but she’d said no. How in the world would she start a new life?
Rivkale Rivkale, Label shouted, running toward her. He lifted her up with his big arms as though she were a toy girl. AMERICA, he yelled, and she tried to smile.