“The Bread Givers,” by Anzia Yezierska, published in 1925, was part of the first wave of Jewish immigrant literature. Like Sara Smolinsky, the main character in this semi-autobiographical novel, the author was a Polish immigrant living in the tenements of New York.
The book traces Sara’s life from age 10 until her late 20s. When the book opens, Sara is living in poverty in a crowded tenement with her long-suffering mother, her rigid, God-fearing father, and three older sisters. All three sisters have dreams of love and marriage, but one by one, they see their dreams thwarted by their father, who clings to Old World values.
When Sara sees how miserable her sisters are in their arranged marriages, she vows to make her own way in the world and to pursue knowledge. Sara’s independent lifestyle and her choice to attend college is unthinkable to her parents and even to her sisters, though, despite being trapped in awful marriages, can’t understand why Sara doesn’t want to get married.
They come to Sara, all weeping over their marriages. Sara responds:
“Then I’m better off than you married people! It’s not a picnic to live alone. But at least I’ve no boss of a husband to crush the spirit in me.”
“But who wants to be an old maid?” cried Fania.
In an era when women were not valued except if married with children, Sara defies convention, even at the cost of alienating her family. Ironically, while her father constantly tells his daughters that the Torah proclaims a woman is nothing without a man, it is the women in the book who are essential to the father — they provide total care to him while he is free to study all day. When his wife dies, he waits no longer than 30 days to remarry, just to have someone to cook and clean for him.
Sara’s rocky relationship with her father, Reb Smolinsky, is part of what drives her to succeed. They are equally headstrong and opinionated but are in constant conflict.
Along with immigrants’ struggles, self-sacrifice, the basic human need for love and acceptance, and the clash between Old World ways and modern ways, poverty is a central theme:
“By the whole force of my will I could reason myself out of the dirt and noise around me. But how could I reason with my hungry stomach?”
Sara is outspoken and outwardly fearless but inside she is lonely. Even when she leaves New York to go to college in an unnamed small town, she is unable to connect with other students. And while she disdains marriage, she has an undeniable need to be loved; because she asserted her independence and got an education, at the book’s end she is able to wait for true love.
Yezierska, who died in 1970 at the age of 90, published other novels and short stories in the 1920s, including “Salome of the Tenements and Arrogant Beggar.”
The 2003 republication of this novel contains still photos from a long-forgotten Hollywood production of Yezierska’s collection of short stories, “Hungry Hearts,” produced by Samuel Goldwyn in the mid-1920’s; Yezierska herself worked on the screenplay.
The story of Sara’s lonely struggles in an unforgiving world is a classic one. More than eight decades since its publication, this novel is a gem in Jewish-American literature.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska, 1925.