Our member Susan Levin writes:
Were you raised on All of a Kind Family or do you get misty-eyed if someone says Yonah Shimmels or Guss’ Pickles in your presence? If so, I would suggest that you approach Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska with caution. This book is definitely not a heart-warming tale of life on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century.
The Yezierska family (their surname was Americanized to Mayer by immigration officials) arrived here in the early 1890s. The father was a Talmudic scholar who continued studying and living his life by the religious and cultural values he brought with him from Eastern Europe. Anzia, the youngest of nine children, left school after two years to help support her family. When she was seventeen, she left home and, supporting herself with various menial jobs, she was able to obtain an education and become a teacher. She began writing in 1915. Her short stories and novels (The Hungry Hearts, Children of Loneliness, Salome of the Tenements, Bread Givers, Arrogant Beggar, All I Could Never Be, and Red Ribbon On a White Horse) focus on Jewish immigrant life at the turn of the century.
Knowing this background, it is difficult to separate fiction from autobiographical detail in the Bread Givers. The novel depicts the harsh reality of immigrant life. It is the story of poverty and hunger. A world where the purchase of enough plates and cutlery to enable everyone to sit around the table at the same time is a noteworthy event.
The four daughters of Reb Smolinsky are the bread earners, giving over every cent that they earn to support the family. He refuses to let them marry for love. When his first daughter’s beau comes to ask for her hand, Reb Smolinsky demands not only that she be taken without a dowry, but that he be set up in business, noting that “when a girl like mine leaves the house the father gets poorer, not richer”. The more assimilated suitor begs Bessie to think of herself and marry him without her father’s blessing, but she can’t. She cries that she hasn’t the courage to live for herself, that her own life is knocked out of her. And so it goes with each daughter in turn. Their spirits and hearts broken, they are married off to men that Reb Smolinsky, unwise in the ways of the world, chooses,
Our protagonist fights back. She flees from the entrapment of her family home against the curses of her father, yelling that she is an American. She gets an education, becomes a teacher, marries, and eventually reconciles with her father. But the reconciliation is bittersweet. She still feels his weight and the weight of the generations that preceded him on her shoulders.
This is a book of struggle. Written in an English that is informed and shaped by Yiddish (Yinglish?), it presents an unflinching look at immigrant life on Hester Street. Against a backdrop of grinding poverty, misogyny and broken dreams, it tells the story of acculturation and the illusion of the American Dream.
Bread Givers, Anzia Yezierska, Persea Books, 1926, ISBN 0-89255-014-7, in the Shir Hadash Library.