For International Women’s Day

My Grandmother's Quilt-- each circle is a replica of the tip of an umbrella.  Photo by Emma Rosenthal

My Grandmother's Quilt-- each circle is a replica of the tip of an umbrella. Photo by Emma Rosenthal

My Grandmother’s Knitting Needles
By Emma Rosenthal

“What the woman who labors wants is to live, not simply exist–the right to life as the rich woman has it, the right to life, and the sun, and music, and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.” -Garment worker Rose Schneiderman, August 1912


Her hands moved like mercury. The click clack of the needles, back and forth, the yarn spinning from the ball on the floor into the moving swarm of hands and needles, emerging as form, as hats, gloves, scarves, sweaters. “Watch and learn,” she would tell me, and I tried but all I saw was the miraculous transformation of a ball of yarn into cloth. She had grandmother hands, bumpy where the veins stood out, loose soft skin.

“Before a girl could get married in my village she had to prove that she was patient enough for the task,” she told me. “They would give her a bundle of tangled yarn,” she would say, as we would struggle to untangle wool, or rope or extension cords. She told the story as she wound yarn into balls for knitting. “If she could not untangle the yarn, she could not get married.” I remember that story every time I have something to untangle. I would never settle for a village marriage, but patience is a skill applied to any task worthy of completion.

By the time she was five she had lost her entire immediate family. It is not clear if they died of illness and starvation, or were killed in pogroms, massacres committed by Polish or Russian authorities against the Jewish peasants throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Either way, it was governmental policies towards the Jews that killed them, living in the region that was Poland one day, Russia the next, bombarded by Cossacks, government sanctioned thugs that rode in on horseback killing and destroying everything in their sight, slashing open the bellies of pregnant women, raping children, killing the livestock, burning homes. She remembered being thrown into a root cellar by her aunt when she was only six to hide from the Cossacks, hidden among the carrots and parsnips, potatoes and rutabagas while death, destruction, ravaged in the streets above her. At six, she landed on Ellis Island in New York Harbor, with her aunt and nephews, on the false passport of her dead cousin. They came to join her uncle in New York, in America, where there is such abundance that they shovel gold in the streets. What she found was the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. Delancy Street, Hester Street. A three room, cold water walk up flat on the fourth floor. There was no bath, the toilet was in the hallway, shared by all the families on the floor. She slept in the kitchen.
She decided to go to work. At age nine she went to the factory by day and school at night. Now she had three different identities, as common to the immigrant experience as cheap labor and cloth dust. She was of course, herself – Anna Kaufman – daughter of Aaron Moses Kaufman and Choma Reingold. Her passport gave her the identity of her dead cousin. And now she had a third set of documents, for work, identifying her as a thirteen year old. She found employment in an umbrella factory, making the tips of umbrellas.
She worked there for three years. By the time she was 12, she was able to make every part of the umbrella and was now a shop forelady. It was that year, 1909 that a strike broke out in the garment industry. The strike, led mostly by Jewish and Italian immigrant teenagers, was named the Uprising of the 20,000. Not a machine whirred, not a wheel turned. The strike that began on November 22, 1909, lasted almost four months, through the winter and ended on March 8, 1910. She wasn’t a leader in the strike, but she left her lofted position of middle management and walked out with the other workers in one of American history’s biggest strikes. “I didn’t want to be a scab,” she told me.
Such a different world, where a 12 year old girl knows the sanctity of a picket line and the importance of righteous bread.
“Watch and learn,” she would tell me, her hands moving like silver as yarn became cloth. “Watch and learn.” She would tell me.

I still can’t knit. I never have crossed a picket line.


About emmarosenthal

Emma Rosenthal is an artist, writer, educator, reiki practitioner, farmer and human rights activist, living in Southern California, whose work combines art, activism, education and grassroots mobilization. As a person with a disability she is confined, not by her disability but by the narrow and marginalizing attitudes and structures of the society at large. She is the founder and co-director of The WE Empowerment Center and Café Intifada, and she lives and works at Dragonflyhill Urban Farm. As an educator her emphasis has been in the areas of bilingual and multicultural education. Her experience as a grassroots organizer, political essayist and speaker has been life long and has included many progressive causes. Her work seeks to combine art, activism, education and grassroots mobilization. Her poetry and prose is impassioned, sensual, political, life affirming and powerful. In her writing she explores the use of art and literary expression to elicit an ethos more compelling than dogma and ideological discourse, providing new paradigms for community, communion, connection and human transformation. She has been a featured poet and speaker throughout Southern California at a variety of venues and programs including; The Arab-American Festival, Highways Performance Space, The Autry Museum, Barnes and Nobel, Poetic License, Borders/Pasadena, Beyond Baroque, Freedom Fries Follies (a fundraiser for The Center for the Study of Political Graphics), KPFK, Arts in Action, Chafey College, UC Irvine and Hyperpoets. Her work has appeared in several publications including Lilith Magazine, The Pasadena Star News, The San Gabriel Tribune, The San Gabriel Valley Quarterly, LoudMouth Magazine (CSLA), Coloring Book; An Eclectic Anthology of Multicultural Writers (Rattlecat Press 2003), Muse Apprentice Guild and the Anthology, Shifting Sands, Jewish-American Women Speak Out Against the Occupation, Spring 2010. Her work has shown in several galleries in the Southern California area, including the Galleries at Whittier College, and Pasadena City College, as well as Beans and Leaves Coffeehouse in Covina, CA.

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