by Esther Cohen

To read earlier installments, search “BOBST” at right.

 

A young Jewish girl named Rivka comes to New York City at the beginning of the 20th century. She meets a woman named Clara at the garment factory where she works.

CLARA, eight years older than Rivka, Clara, soon after immigrating to the United States from the pogroms in Russia, Clara was more certain of her path. Clara was tall for her family and her history, for a young woman living in New York in 1902. She was a person born tall. She had a certain kind of presence. Eyes that really saw. And her mouth was not modest. You could not avoid looking at her. You could not avoid Clara. Even very young, she drew people to her with her will, with her certainty, with her infinite determination. She knew never to give up. Even as a child, she knew what direction she’d walk, and she did not hesitate to walk away from her parents, who always tried to rein her in. They said she was too much. Always too much. She knew what she wanted to eat, what books she knew she had to read. What she wanted to know.

Her parents, very different from who she was, from how she was; her parents found her a challenge — difficult, exhausting, always moving, never staying still. She talked to them about peasants. They seemed to have no interest. She talked to them about Marx. She knew that America was a bigger world, a place with the opportunity to build the world she envisioned. Nothing about the way they lived appealed to her, and as soon as she could, she left their small village of Kishinev, Romania, where she was born, a place where the Jews moved hesitantly, where laws were obeyed, where people did what they were told; she couldn’t wait to make her own path.

When they met, Clara and Rivka, on the shop floor of GGG clothing — a big room, a sweatshop, full of women, Italians and Jews, immigrants all, nervous women — when Clara saw Rivka the first time, when her Uncle Label brought her into the shop, she saw a young girl, blank canvas, someone who could help her in her goal, to organize, to change, to make life better. Rivka looked soft. Pliable even. Clara was all angles and edges, quick to move, quick to speak, quick to take charge. She had ideas, and these ideas were what propelled her. Some of this did not always work in her favor. Her eyes took in all that was in the rooms where she stood, and her hands were never still.  Clara had enemies. Clara had friends. Her strength kept her moving.

“Rivka,” she said. “My Rivka,” she continued, speaking a Yiddish that sounded comforting, familiar. They could be sisters. “There’s so much we will do.” Rivka, a young girl, knowing so little, a blank canvas, thought she could do anything now.

 

Esther Cohen is arts and events consultant for Jewish Currents and writes a daily poem at her website, esthercohen.com.