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by Esther Cohen
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The women working together grow closer. Clara presents Rivka with a choice.
"IF YOU ORGANIZE, you’ll be fired,” Mr. G. said to Clara. He repeated this more than once. “You will lose your job,” he said, more annoyed than angry that she wouldn’t just do what he said and just stop. Mr. G. wasn’t an especially bad man. He didn’t yell or shout, and he didn’t single out certain workers, the way some people did. “I mean it,” he added. “I really and truly do.”
Mr. G. was not a tall man, though he had a tall man’s voice. Though he could be terribly loud, he kept his distance. None of the workers knew him well. He was nearly as wide as he was tall, and he had both a beard and a mustache. He did not look especially American. But he didn’t have an accent, either.
Mr. G. owned the factory with his two brothers. They all started the business together -- women’s blouses, made from cotton. They were in bright colors, never white. The blouses were simple, practical, and easy for the women on the factory floor to sew. His brothers weren’t in the shop. They had other business interests. Running the factory was up to him.
They were on the seventh floor in a high building on a very crowded industrial block, right in the middle of Prince Street. Prince Street was not remotely princely. The masonry and cast iron buildings were full of workers. It was hard to imagine that this very same land, a few hundred years before, was farmland given to freed slaves from the South. The neighborhood was also the city’s Red Light District, and girls, mostly young, mostly immigrants, too, walked back and forth through the blocks during the day, and every single night.
The shop was about a twenty-minute walk for Clara and Rivka, each day. Most of the women lived on the Lower East Side: Orchard, Allen, Essex, Eldridge. They walked in groups. After Rivka met Clara, she didn’t have to worry that she’d get lost. Clara stopped in her doorway every single day. Other young girls joined them, too, and soon they formed a group, a real group that sat together eating their lunches together, talking, talking, talking about what they thought and what they felt and how they imagined their lives.
Rivka had never had a group of friends before. Her life had been family, all family, every single day. Her family had been all her world. Uncle Label encouraged her to meet as many people as she could. He liked Clara, and wanted Rivka to help Clara organize. Label wanted so much for Rivka. She knew that, but she wasn’t sure herself what she wanted. She just didn’t know. Still she listened carefully to Clara. She paid close attention.
“Mr. G. told me I was going to lose my job if I continued,” said Clara. “He doesn’t want me to organize. It’s not in his interest. But it’s in ours,” she said. She always sounded so sure of herself, as though she knew just what she was doing. “Will you join me?” she asked Rivka again. “We need you.”
Esther Cohen is arts and events consultant for Jewish Currents and writes a daily poem at her website, esthercohen.com.