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by Esther Cohen
To read the earlier installments of BOBST, search at right under “Bobst.”
Shmuel Feigenbaum wrote to Rivka from South Africa. Both from Bobst, in Lithuania, they met briefly in Rivka’s uncle’s lending office. She was 14 and he was 11 years older. The year was 1903. Shmuel was working in a clothing factory in Johannesburg owned by a distant relative. He lived in a house with 9 Jewish men. Rivka lived in a 2 bedroom apartment on Orchard Street with her uncle Label, his wife, and their two children. She, too, worked in a garment factory. She walked there from home every day, marking her path with tailor’s chalk.
“WILL YOU GO to Johannesburg?” Sophie was a gentle woman, soft-spoken and eternally patient. She was happy enough with the life she and Label and the children had in their small apartment in America. What she wanted from life was to take care of her family. And her family needed food and a home. And Rivka was part of her family now. She put her arm on Rivka’s shoulder.
Rivka’s own family had not been affectionate. Touching was not what they did. But she didn’t move away.
“Why did you marry Label?” asked Rivka.
Even though her mother had told her nearly from birth that marriage was her necessity, marriage was her path, she wasn’t entirely sure. Her father had a single sister, a thin woman who looked very old. Everyone else in the world she knew was married.
Rivka didn’t know her other options, what else she could do.
She’d thought very little about what life could be. About what she could do. The life she knew was full of chores, chores that couldn’t be forgotten or changed.
Now suddenly here she was, without her family, without much of a plan except to be in America. Some people thought America was plan enough.
America meant New York City. And there, just one small piece: the Lower East Side, full and crowded maze of narrow streets and people, young and old, so many people speaking Yiddish and Italian, so many people struggling and shouting, trying hard to make one another laugh. Laughter was one value they carried.
Sophie seemed happy enough, but Sophie and Rivka weren’t the same. Sophie talked mostly about her children, and Label, and the family she left behind.
Rivka had other ideas but they were entirely unformed, so vague.
In a funny way that she didn’t understand, she liked working at the factory, having the chance to spend the day with other girls and women, having the chance to do something outside of the house. She had a friend there, a woman a little older than she and surer too of what she was doing. A woman named Clara. Maybe Clara could help her figure out a life.
But what about Shmuel Feigenbaum? And how his name, just saying his name, made her feel.
She knew she had no choice but to write him back, to tell him a little about what her life was like. To tell him what little she knew about America.
Esther Cohen is arts and events consultant for Jewish Currents and writes a daily poem at her website, esthercohen.com.