“Bread Givers: A Novel” by Anzia Yezierska— Jewish Immigrants— A Classic Story


Yezierska, Anzia. “Bread Givers: A Novel”, with a Foreword by Alicia Kessler-Harris, Persea, 2013 (reprint).

Jewish Immigrants— A Classic Story

Amos Lassen

I think of myself as a literate man yet I am not too embarrassed to say that until a couple of months ago, I had never heard of Anna Yezierska or her novel, “Bread Givers”. The only reason I am now aware of it is that it is going to be the basis of a three session class at my temple so I got myself a copy and read it.

“Bread Givers” was originally published by Doubleday in 1925 and was soon lauded as a masterwork of American immigrant literature. It is set in the 1920s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and tells the story of Sara Smolinsky, the youngest daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, who rebels against her father’s rigid conception of Jewish womanhood. We red of Sara’s passionate struggle towards independence and self-fulfillment.

Sara describes with urgency and detail the lives she, her sisters, and her mother live in order to support their revered, Torah-reading father. They live in crowded shared rooms so that he can study undisturbed and the numerous jobs they undertake in order to maintain the family and support his books, charities, and dress along with his constant and almost impossible demands. Sara struggles to remain loyal but shares that she begins to feel different from her sisters who were too frightened of their father to hate him the way Sara does. Through the use of wonderful dialogue, Anzia Yezierska brings to life a heritage whose strength, wisdom, and idiom continue even today. Yezierska takes us inside an early twentieth-century American immigrant Jewish family, a family without a son to lighten their load and/or brighten their lives. “Bread Givers” is testament to the struggle of Jewish immigrants and more correctly Jewish female immigrants as they struggle to find their places in America and the world.

Yezierska’s themes of self-discovery, conflicted Jewish identity and Americanization challenge us to look at who we are. novel). Yezierska’s novel looks at the themes as self-awareness, cultural marginalization of immigrants, loss and recovery of ethnic identity, feminist discontent and awakening sexuality. Most of the action occurs through dialogue and the use of internal soliloquies gives us the opportunity to test our own judgments against those of Sara Smolinsky. Her father exudes tyranny and omniscience when he is present and causes Sarah to face conflict head on. The father-daughter relationship and situations are filled with universal truths even though the setting is particular to the Eastern European Jewish experience.

On the most literal level, Yezierska writes of the struggle of Russian/Polish Jews to assimilate in the New York just before the First World War. The action takes place over twelve years and Sara Smolinsky, who begins the novel as a ten year old girl and one of three other sisters becomes an adult before our eyes. Since she is the narrator, we see the action through her eyes and we, therefore perceive events as she does. However, what she sees is so emotionally shattering that we, the readers begin to substitute our own experiences as a way to filter what goes on.

Sara and her family live in New York but their world view is heavily shaped by their origins in the Old World of Eastern Europe. In that society, the male head of the household is the master. Not only does he dare claim and openly feel and say that women have no place in running a household, he can also can use the Torah as justification. We see Sara’s father, the Reb Smolinsky, as a nasty, vindictive person who is a “one dimensional caricature of all that can go wrong when one hides behind saintly words as an excuse to bully others”. He will not work for pay—that is the job of his family so that he can study Torah. His daughters lack confidence do to his constant insults and arranges disastrous marriages for them. When these marriages go bad, he avoids responsibility by telling his daughters that they must sleep in the beds that they have made. He is the center of dramatic focus and he is hateful that we cannot even think about why. We can question if this comes from Torah but we know Torah scholars who are not like him. We see the results of what happens when a weak-minded individual takes words and ideas which are noble and makes them into something monstrous.

The father, the Reb has the ability to twist meanings from the Torah. Sarah and her sisters suffer and wait for the chance for revenge Sara, however, tries against stupendous odds to come to grips with whether one should return good for evil. Sara is the only one in a book full of hurt people inflicting verbal pain on others who even tries to look behind what is happening and she comes across as a figure of strength and discipline that stays with is after we have finished reading the book. Sara does not allow her father to completely dominate her. She does not allow him to marry her off to a man that she does not love–like he did to her three older sisters. She leaves home around the age of seventeen and works in a laundry store all day and takes night classes at night for years so that she can go to college. She has to make so many sacrifices along the way, but she never gives up on her dream of graduating from college and becoming a teacher. The fact that she was able to work her way out of poverty, get an education, and obtain her dream of becoming a teacher is truly inspirational. We are reminded that words can heal as well as hurt.

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