Friday, March 18, 2011

Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers

Anzia Yezierska (1881 - 1970) was the daughter of Russian-Polish Jews who immigrated to the United States in the early 1890s. Her father was a Talmudic scholar who engaged in full time study of the holy books while her mother struggled to support the family. Yerzierska worked in sweat shops to put herself through Columbia University. Yezierska became a popular novelist and short story writer during the 1920s before slipping into relative obscurity during the Great Depression of the 1930s. She died in 1970.

Bread Givers (1925) is Yezierska’s most well known novel. Bread Givers is the story of Sara Smolinsky, like Yezierska, a Polish Jew whose family has immigrated to the United States and are living in poverty in a seedy tenement in New York City. When the novel opens, Sara is about twelve years old. Sara is one of a family of four daughters. Her father, a rabbi, spends all of his time either praying at the synagogue or studying the Torah. The mother and the daughters are expected to work and then turn their wages over to their father to support him in his holy work. Therefore, the women are the “bread givers” of the title.

Sara watches as each one of her sisters in turn brings home boyfriends whom her father rejects. Reb Smolinsky then arranges marriages for each of Sara’s three sisters which turn out to be disasterous. Upon receiving a little money from one of the new son in laws, Reb Smolinsky immediately wastes it in a business deal where he is taken advantage of by a con man. Finally having had enough, at age 17 Sara leaves home and strikes out on her own. Her father is, of course, outraged since he expects Sara to work to support him until he decides that it is time for her to marry when he will find her a husband.

Sara works long hours in a laundry and goes to night school until she is able to apply to college. Yezierska shows the struggle to survive of a young woman on her own in New York City in the early years of the twentieth century. Landlords are reluctant to rent rooms to single women. In cafeterias the men are given larger portions and the best cuts of meat. Finally, after much struggle, Sara is able to leave New York City and go away to college. Once again she has to work long hours in a laundry and a canning factory to support herself. As a poor immigrant she is an outsider who is ostracized by the other students.

Finally Sara graduates and returns to New York City to work as a public school teacher. Just when things are looking up for her, her mother dies. Reb Smolinsky marries a widow who lives upstairs who is only interested in him because of the insurance money he has gotten after his wife’s death. When the life insurance money runs out, the new wife becomes a nag.

Eventually, Sara becomes engaged to her school principal, another Jewish immigrant named Hugo Seelig. Hugo asks to study Hebrew with Reb Smolinsky and invites him to live with him and Sara. Sara is the first of Reb Smolinsky’s daughters to bring home a boyfriend that their father approves of. Hugo tells Sara “As for your father, I know just the kind of an old Jew he is. After all, it’s from him that you got the iron for the fight you had to make to be what you are now.” So after spending years trying to escape her father, Sara and her new husband will honor him and take care of him during his last years.

Bread Givers
is a beautiful book. Since the novel is semi-autobiographical, the descriptions of the life and culture of the Jewish immigrants is very true to life. This is a short novel (297 pages in the Persea edition), but very quickly one feels totally immersed in the life of Sara Smolinsky and her milieu. The book is emotionally very powerful and the reader is carried along with Sara during her struggles. Bread Winners is a classic novel which is still well worth reading.

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