Esther Cohen is arts and events consultant for Jewish Currents and writes a daily poem at her website, esthercohen.com.
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by Esther Cohen
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Uncle Label takes his young niece Rivka to see people in New York.
"COME," LABEL SHOUTED. “Come with me.”
He grabbed Rivka’s small thin hand, her white hand that was so much a girl’s, a hand that had hardly been touched. Her instinct was to pull away.
“I want to show you something,” he said. He was a man who was gentle and insistent. He spoke simply, which made it hard to say no to him. “Today we will see something of what life looks like.” Then he laughed, not wanting her to be frightened of what she didn’t know. “The world is big. It’s up to us to see.”
“I thought today I would take the children,” she said. “So Sophie could go shopping.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Sophie’s sister will be here this afternoon. She’s bringing her children, too. Today is me and you,” he said. “I will show you America.”
“America,” she repeated shyly. “America,” she said again. She could say the word, but she didn’t know what it meant.
“Look around you,” Label said. They were walking down Orchard Street, through Rivington and Essex. Walking through people, so many people, loud and busy. Rivka picked her head up and she looked. Label saw her looking. “Tell me what you see.”
The streets were dense with life, with children and old people, people who looked both familiar to her, and strange. “Tell me,” Label said again, and Rivka knew she had to try.
She was unused to describing very much, unused to being asked what she thought. “I see, and I’m afraid,” she said, without thinking. The words just seemed to be there.
“What frightens you?” Label was a kind man, a very kind man. He wanted Rivka to say whatever she wanted.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here.” Her voice was soft, quiet, not so easy to hear. Label had to lean closer. They were on Eldridge Street, walking through carts that were piled high with all kinds of clothes: t-shirts, pants, dresses. The clothes were bright, and seemed as though they were all about to topple. All sizes of women reached into the piles, pulling out clothing with intention. The women were talking to one another, purposeful, happy. “I’m lost,” Rivka said. “I don’t know what will happen to me here.”
“Do you miss your family? Do you miss Bobst? Tell me what you miss.”
Before she could answer, a nearby woman saw them and rushed toward Label and Rivka with an unexpected urgency. “Here you are,” is the first thing she said.
“Hello, hello,” said Label, and the woman actually shook his hand. “I’ve been waiting to meet your niece,” the woman said. “I’m Sara,” she smiled, and held out her hand to Rivka. “I’m organizing a union.”
Rivka had never shaken a hand before. She didn’t know the words organizing or union. What did they mean?