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by Esther Cohen
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ON A COLD October night, more winter than fall, windy and dark by 6 o’clock, the women met in Clara’s Aunt Thea’s apartment, bigger than some, on the corner of Rivington and Essex. The year was 1909. The boroughs had become one consolidated city only twenty years before. About three million people lived in New York City. Many were poor and unskilled immigrants, Catholics and Jews. Of course, there were wealthy people, millionaires even, but they lived above 34th Street, in a place called “millionaires row.”
Many of the people were immigrants, from Eastern Europe, from Italy, from Ireland, unskilled people wanting a better life, hoping that hard work and the opportunity that they believed was America would be their once in a lifetime chance.
Twenty-three women gathered on that night, arriving in twos and threes. Rivka was the youngest of them. She was barely 14. Except in the synagogue, she’d never been in a room full of women who weren’t all her relatives. Women she didn’t know. Older, they all looked much more sure of who they were and what they were doing. She’d only been in New York for four months. Once again, she felt nervous, excited and uncertain. Why they were meeting was what she didn’t know. Clara had grabbed Rivka’s hand and just said COME.
Saying No was absolutely not an option. Everyone seemed to follow her lead, to say YES to Clara. Rivka knew she had to have teachers. What she didn’t know was what she needed and wanted to learn.
Most of the other women were in their early twenties, though Bella, the oldest, was 31. Most were mothers with small children. They were tired, but they were hopeful too.
This October night they gathered together for the very first time. Clara had brought them together to ask the women what they thought about the jobs they did, their working conditions, and their employers. She asked them what they thought about the lives they wanted to build in this country they were all new to, this country that was America.
The room was crowded, and loud. Clara was clearly in charge. Although she, too, was from a small village in the Ukraine, she seemed entirely at home in her aunt’s place in New York City. Her aunt was her mother’s sister.
Clara shouted into the room full of women: Tonight is our beginning. We will figure out together what we want from our jobs, what we want from our bosses, and what we want from ourselves.
Some of the women laughed nervously, but most were silent. Oddly, it was Rivka who was the first to speak, shy Yiddish-speaking Rivka, so reticent and young.
“I’m here to help,” is what she said. After her words, many others yelled “Yes.”
Esther Cohen is arts and events consultant for Jewish Currents and writes a daily poem at her website, esthercohen.com. Her novels include Book Doctor and No Charge for Looking.