You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Channel Esther: Books, Bread, and Roses

Esther Cohen
August 30, 2017

by Esther Cohen

IN THE LATE 1970s and early ’80s when life was younger when my life was younger when the world I lived in was a very bright orange I ended up working for an unlikely man, a Protestant minister, high-minded, theologically versed, the kind of man who led Marches and gave speeches you wanted to write down. I got the job the way many of us did then. Through my friend Stephen, a man I trusted who said Do You Want To Work For The Pilgrim Press? I had no idea what Pilgrim Press was but the word WORK stood out because I needed work and my jobs, occasionally interesting, were usually not. (Rochester Button Company was where I was working when Stephen asked the questions. I was a temp. Buttons were buttons.) At my job interview, the prominent minister asked me what I knew about Reinhold Niebuhr. Nothing was my answer but I said I knew a very little bit about Martin Buber so he, a generous man, talked about Buber instead. He hired me to edit social justice books. I’m not sure why he hired me -- kindness? intuition? but that unexpected and unpredictable opportunity changed so much of the rest of my life. Every day he would take me to lunch with him and a potential author, usually an unbelievably dull theologian from a prominent institution, say Union Seminary or Princeton, and the theologian would describe a book. After lunch, as we walked back to the office, my boss would ask what I thought. Because I was a clean slate, because I had even less tact than I do now, I would explain how tedious the presentation had been, how minuscule the subject matter seemed. This did not, by the way, necessarily effect whether the book would become a book. Still my boss would listen.

One day we had lunch with someone altogether different: a labor leader who told story after story that you really did want to hear: about workers, about workers whose lives had been deeply changed by 1199, their union. Work and workers were new to me. He told us a story I vaguely knew, but when he told it I could feel the story enter into me the way one or two or three or four stories do, in a lifetime, about women in a textile mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 who went on strike to change their lives for themselves, for their children, and for all other workers. It was called the Bread and Roses strike, to fight for bread, and roses for everyone. I knew when he said those words that I too wanted to fight for bread, and for roses. The three of us, Famous Minister, Labor Leader and naive young woman who had no idea about very much, worked together for many years. When I think now, about Labor Day, and Work and Workers and the paths of life, the personal paths, and the collective paths, I am grateful to those two men, and to my friend who led me to them, and to the many thousands of workers I have met who have taught me what work means, and have shown over and over and over again how much we all need roses alongside our bread.