Bread, and Roses

In the late seventies and early eighties 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 Neibuhr. 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.

Esther Cohen
Let me tell you why I'm here, and why I hope you'll join me. I am here to poem, to play with words, to tell stories when I can, and to ask you for yours. Words are what I love, how I see, and what I say. Words are how I know my life, and how I find my friends. I'm here to ask you to join me. Right here. To send me your stories, and your poems. And to read mine when you can.

11 Comments

  1. Thank you Esther for this beautiful story about your journey, how you came to love all people especially those who struggle with something and reminding us to dig underneath the layers like a worker exposing the core importances of life.

  2. Wonderful Labor Day story Esther. Thanks! How fine to express gratitude to those people who had an impact on our early lives…..and we carry them with us into the Now.

  3. Wonderful how friend Stephen led to all of this. Including the book that you suggested and I put together, published by Pilgrim Press back in 1983 which we called After Lebanon: The Israeli-Palestinian Connection, with the daring idea of photos of Menachem Begin and Yassir Arafat on the cover. Now it’s time for the follow-up book, After Gaza. Happy Labor Day.

    P.S. And speaking of Martin Buber, I had coffee in Jerusalem two weeks ago with Prof. Paul Mendes-Flohr, and he told me that Yale University Press asked him to prepare a 60,000 word biography on Buber, that he’s working on. He says that there are 50,000 letters in the Buber archive, from the days when people still wrote letters to each other. With envelopes and stamps.

  4. What a beautiful telling of your journey and I smile to learn of the origin of bread and roses. Thanks, Esther! How fitting as we celebrate Labor Day.

  5. I’m so grateful for Esther Cohen who is moved by every face and every rose and sees the beauty in the eyes of a cow.

  6. I loved reading this, Esther. Never heard the story before. Coincidentally, Neibhur used to live just down the road from where we now live in Heath, Mass. Maybe you’ve learned more about his since that interview. Buber was good, though. And, as always, your honesty was most impressive.

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