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by Esther Cohen
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Rivka had been in New York City for a few months, living with her cousin Label and his family in a two-room apartment on Orchard Street. She worked in a garment factory. Only 14, she was leading a very different life from what she once knew, in a small village in Lithuania, a village called Bobst. One day she came home from work to find a letter on her bed. The envelope was ominous, and the handwriting, very beautiful, was unfamiliar, yet she knew it was from Shmuel Feigenbaum, a man she had met the week before she left. The letter was in Yiddish, the only language she really knew. She could hear her heart beat while she read.
My Very Dearest Rivka,
You may not believe me, but I have been thinking about you every single day since we met in line in your uncle’s lending room.
Truly every single day. I see you standing in front of me, young and ready to begin your life.
We know nothing about one another, and although we are as far away from each other as we can be, I thought I’d try a letter as a way to start our knowing. My hope is that you are interested, in that I am not a letter-writing man. I can count the number of letters I have written. And not one of them was ever to a beautiful young woman like you.
We are both in countries we don’t know, trying to build a life.
I think often of what that very idea means. How do we make a good life? What do we all need for that to happen?
I am in Johannesburg because my cousin knew a factory job, a job where he works, and I need to make some money to have more opportunities.
So now, I am living in a small street in Johannesburg, a ghetto full of Jewish men who are here because the doors were open for us to come and work.
This is a country with many many problems, problems I don’t yet understand.
Being able to work is important, and here too I can walk down the street, as a Jew.
I don’t know if I can walk down every street, but from home to work and work to home, we are safe here.
Johannesburg is a big city, but so far, I have seen very little that is more than my own small life.
I would like to tell you as much as I can about who I am, and hear the same from you. But I don’t want to frighten you away. As impatient as I am, I know we must go slowly.
I am an honest man, hard-working and loyal. My hope is that you will see that yourself.
About you I would be very very happy if you would write and tell me as much as you can about yourself, about America, about all that you hope.
I am yours from far away.
Esther Cohen is arts and events consultant for Jewish Currents and writes a daily poem at her website, esthercohen.com.