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by Esther Cohen
AN IMMIGRANT GIRL like so many others, entirely inexperienced with life outside her village, Rivka began to live in New York, leaving behind her small village, a family, and a man named Shmulik whom she met just once at her uncle’s lending office. She left behind religious Jews, a crowded house, a cow named Shayna, two goats, Moshe and Simcha, and a family she might never see again. She left because her family thought it was a good idea, and because maybe, in America, she might have a better life. Yiddish was the language she spoke.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrant girls arrived around the beginning of the 20th century. Danger and confusion were part of every day. And work. Hard work.
They didn’t have time to think too much about what they were doing. And certainly, they never considered why. Life was a series of practical decisions: where to live, what to eat, jobs and chores and tasks.
Rivka lived with her Uncle Label and his wife and two children in a small friendly apartment full of blankets and beds. All of them inhabited two dark rooms painted brown. The bathroom was across the hall, and the kitchen, long and narrow, no bigger than a closet, had enough room for Label’s wife Sophie to cook more or less constantly. A big pot on top of the burner was always full of soup. Next to the pot were big white bowls, and a ladle Sophie’s grandmother brought from Russia. Soup no matter what.
Although she missed what was familiar -- her village, her family, meals she knew -- all this was part of the life Rivka was starting.
Label explained that these rooms, this block, the unfamiliar city and language she did not know -- in fact, she’d never know very well -- all of this was part of the life she was starting. A life that could go anywhere. What anywhere meant she did not know.
Her very first week, Label got Rivka a job working with a friend of his, a political young Jewish woman from the Ukraine, a woman who spoke Yiddish and English well. Her name was Clara. A few years older than Rivka, Clara helped as many young girls as she could. A member of the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, Clara was both an anarchist and a socialist. She was a natural organizer and, as a young girl in the Ukraine, whose family spoke Yiddish, she had taught herself Russian and learned all she could. Clara worked in a dress shop downtown, and took Rivka under her wing.
Label taught Rivka a trick to get to work and to find her way home later. He gave her a waxy piece of white tailor’s chalk and showed her, on her first day of work, how to mark the subway pillars, how to mark her own path. Although she was only just 14, Label told her how important independence was, how she needed to learn all she could so that she would be able to be on her own. Independence was the goal, he said. With Clara and Label, Rivka knew she was in good hands. What she didn’t know is where her path would lead.
Esther Cohen is arts and public events consultant for Jewish Currents and former director of 1199’s Bread and Roses cultural program.