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by Esther Cohen
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RIVKA WENT TO A MEETING organized by a woman named Clara, from the factory. She’d never been to a meeting before. Her family in Romania had been religious, and all she knew of groups were family members eating, or in the synagogue. This was a different story.
Five women from the meeting walked home in the same direction. They all lived on the Lower East Side, near one another, in crowded tenements full of immigrants, young people and old. Many spoke Yiddish. Bella, the oldest, a married mother, spoke to Rivka gently. “I’m sure you know,” she said, “your life can be anything here. That’s why we’re in America,” she said. Bella was far gentler than Clara, rounder, more like Rivka’s own mother.
Suddenly out of nowhere Rivka started to cry. “I miss them,” she whispered to Bella. “I miss the village, and the chickens, and my family there. I don’t know that I’ll ever see them again.” Bella put her arms around Rivka. “I know,” she said, and held her tightly until Rivka stopped her sobbing. She wasn’t a crier, and the depth of her tears surprised her. “I know,” Bella repeated.
Sophie was waiting for her when she got home, with cookies and a hot cup of tea. “Sit,” she said. “Tell me.”
“I don’t want to get married,” was the first thing Rivka said. “Not now. I want to learn, and to see. But I miss my family,” she said. “I do.” “And they miss you,” Sophie said. “But I know how much they want you to have a good life. A life where you have a chance to grow. They want you to learn. To have a good job. Just what Label and I want for our girls,” she said. “And what about you?” Rivka asked. “Do you ever think about yourself?”
They both sat quietly for a minute, and then Sophie smiled at Rivka. “Now maybe I will,” she said.
“There’s only one thing I have to do. That I understand better now,” Rivka spoke in a new strong voice. She seemed older than fourteen. She went into her room, and took out the piece of white paper Sophie had given her a few weeks ago, and she began to write a letter. Now she knew what to say.
Dear Shmuel, she began. Her handwriting was clear. I was happy to hear from you, and to know you are well in Johannesburg. Someday I would like to see South Africa, and the rest of the world too. When I came to this country I didn’t know anything. Bobst is a very small place. Now I know just a little bit more. Not all that much. Enough to be able to write to you and tell you this. I need time to grow. I want to become a person, a real person, with a life I can’t yet understand. I want to learn what it means to be a Jew, and a woman, and to live in America, to work and to study and to see, to really see, what life can be. All that will take me a while. I am grateful we met in the line in Bobst, and that I have a friend far away. Yours, Rivka
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.