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by Esther Cohen
To read parts I-VIII, please search at right under “Bobst”
NEW YORK was difficult for Rivka. Nothing looked or felt familiar. Especially smells. When she walked on the street to the subway, when she was on the subway itself, she didn’t know the words to say. Confused was probably closest. She was always confused.
I’ll tell you. Just ask me, Clara said every day. Although she was only a few years older than Rivka, an immigrant herself, Clara seemed to know exactly what she was doing. In the factory, the women all looked up to her. Even women twenty or thirty years older.
Every single day, Clara would look into Rivka’s eyes and see confusion. And every single day, Rivka would say Gornisht Helfn, nothing helps. Give it time, Clara replied.
One day, after four months had passed, four months full of noise and a certain amount of wonder -- New York, after all, was really like nowhere else -– Rivka came home to a letter. Label’s wife had placed it squarely in the middle of the feather pillow she’d made for Rivka, the softest pillow she’d known in her life.
She’d get home from work every day around 5:30, exhausted from the job, from the newness, from all that she did not know, from all she felt she’d never know.
She’d take off her big black shoes, too ugly for a girl her age, and the loose brown dress she wore every day, a dress that looked more like a paper bag, and she’d change into an old cotton housedress that Sophie had given her. Faded flowers, pockets even. She was happier in the dress. On her feet she wore slippers, her first pair. American slippers that Sophie crocheted. They were green, and somehow, the green seemed right. She knew she was happier at home. Even in this crowded apartment, with children and guests, with no room at all, even here she felt she could make a life.
She did not lay down, but she often straightened her bed before going in the tiny kitchen to help with dinner.
And there she saw the letter. She’d never gotten a letter before. But she knew when she saw the handwriting, entirely unfamiliar, who it was from. And she had the thought that her first letter, and maybe her last -- who knew? -- came all the way from . . . Sophie could read English and read the postmark: Johannesburg. Rivka was not sure where that was.
She did not open it immediately. Instead she held the light blue envelope with her name written in English, in black ink, more beautifully than she’d ever seen her name. She held onto the envelope tightly in her hand, as though holding it was enough. She could hear her own breathing, and maybe, she would have spent the entire night grasping onto her envelope, if Sophie hadn’t said: “Aren’t you going to open it?” Sophie said. “We are all excited that you’ve gotten a letter,“ she added. “It’s from Africa. South Africa. Who in the world do you know there?”
“A man,” Rivka replied, and smiled. “Shmuel Feigenbaum.” That’s all she said and all she knew.
Esther Cohen is arts and events consultant for Jewish Currents and writes a daily poem at her website, esthercohen.com.