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by Esther Cohen
To read earlier installments, search “Bobst’ at right.
Rivka, living on Orchard Street, only 14, is in America from Lithuania. She is with her cousin Label and his family, working in a garment shop, beginning a new life, trying to understand what that new life might be. What would her life look like in a language she didn’t know, in a country she didn’t know either? Without her family, without the small shtetl where she’d lived for her entire life. She has a letter from a man named Shmuel Feigenbaum, a man she knew only a little. He, too, was from Bobst. Living in Johannesburg now, he too was trying to build a life.
LABEL came into the room where Rivka slept, where she now stood with his Sophie, his good kind wife. Rivka held Shmuel Feigenbaum’s letter in her right hand. She held it too tightly. She knew she had to write him back, to tell him something about her life. But what would she say?
“Rivkele,” Label said, his voice deep and gentle, both. “My Rivkele,” he said, familiar and yet different from her father, different from her uncles, too. Label was a stronger man, more sure of himself and of what he wanted. She could hear this certainty.
“This is America,” he said. “Life here is not the same. You have a chance, a new chance. You are a young girl. The world is yours, if that’s what you want. Your past is what made you Rivka, but now it’s about your future. Now it’s about your dreams. Whatever you want, you can do in this place. You can get an education, a good education. You have the first chance in your life to learn, to truly learn. Of course you’ll work, but you can learn too. There is night school here. I’ve been going to school ever since I’ve arrived. English is first. It’s not so easy but you’re not going to have as hard a time as we did. Before too long, you’ll speak, and you’ll understand. Language is funny. Words can change what you think and what you know. You’ll see,” he said, and he gave her his most generous smile, loving and true. “You can become a teacher or a union organizer or a medical doctor, even. The world is very big in this city and in this country. You need determination and courage. But now you have a chance. A big chance. We will help. We want to give you opportunities. We want to give you choices. Try to imagine what your life could be if your world was open to all that you imagined.”
For the first time since she’d arrived, Rivka understood what being in New York meant. She looked up at them both, smiling at her, right there next to her in this crowded funny apartment, so full of life, and she started to cry. She wasn’t sure why she was crying.