|Bread Givers Study Guide
1. How does the title, Bread Givers, relate to the story?
2. The father addresses his wife by calling her “woman!” Other than knowing through the text that the father looks down on females, what are other significances of the demand “woman!”?
3. What do you think the four sisters believe their obligations as daughters are? How does this differ from their father's belief of what their obligations are? Why do you think that Bessie, Fania, and Masah’s beliefs about their obligations as daughters differ from Sara’s?
4. While Sara chases dreams of finding her own identity and breaking away from her father’s traditional way of life, are there any parts of her culture that she cannot escape or that prevent her from fulfilling her dream to create an entirely new identity?
5. Discuss the father's dominance of power displayed within the family.
6. What is the influence of the father toward Sara and her sisters toward their happiness of marriage?
7. Discuss the effects of religion on the family.
8. Discuss the influence of the father on the economic life of the family.
9. As a woman today, in what ways would you act differently than Sara's sisters did, in reaction to their Father’s “Tyranny”?
10. If you wanted to run away from your family, where is the one place you would go and why? Do you think you could survive at the young age of 17?
11. Are “brains” more important than working hard for a living?
12. If Sara’s sisters had been allowed to date who they wanted, would it have affected her running away from home?
13. How does aesthetics of the dominant culture incorporate itself into the novel? In other words, how is art and beauty portrayed, especially in terms of dress?
14. To what degree do traditional gender roles survive in the New World? To what degree do women cooperate in their own oppression?
15. How did being Jewish affect the characters’ lives in America?
16. How did their culture affect the girls in their new life?
17. Why did the girls put up with it if they were in America?
18. What role does Judaism play in the story of Sara Smolinsky’s life? Explain.
19. Why does the father continue the set up his daughters’ marriages even though they turn out unsuccessful?
20. In what way does the father’s role influence the children?
21. Sara decided to flee from her family. Do you think this was a wise choice? Why or why not?
22. Do you think that the father is the cause of the family’s failure? What could he have done differently?
Book I: Hester Street
Sister Mashah values beauty more than employment, which causes anger in the family. As her sister Bessie said: “No wonder Father named you ‘Empty-head.’ Here you go to look for work, and you come back with pink roses for your doll face” (page 3). Both sisters wish to escape the poverty of their surroundings, one by improving the appearance of their hovel and the other by improving their financial situation. Who do you think is most productive in enabling that escape?
A running theme throughout the book is the idea that the man’s desire to study religious texts was more valued than the woman’s desire for a level of basic comfort. This concept is shown most clearly when the Smolinsky family came to America carrying only the father’s books and no bed or pots or pans. Why do you think the mother allowed her precious items to be left behind?
Despite the anger that Sara often expresses for her father’s selfishness in his studies, there is also reference to the glory of study (page 16). Why do you think that, despite the hardships the women must endure in order for the father to study, they still see the light of sacred study and still hear the music of holy words?
The difference between men and women for many Jewish families of this time is referenced on page 9: “The prayers of his daughters didn’t count because God didn’t listen to women…Women could get into Heaven because they were wives and daughters of men.” Why is reading this opinion important for us today? Though the mother continues to support her husband, she says sarcastically, “And woe to us women who got to live in a Torah-made world that’s only for men” (page 95). How was Sara different from her mother and her sisters? How did their attitudes reflect their life choices?
Sara first tastes independence when she earns her first twenty-five cents (page 22). With that money, she could have run away from the despair she found at home. Instead she chooses to share her joy with the family. Why do you think she chose family over freedom in this first moment?
When Reb Smolinsky is brought to trial for slapping the landlady, the judge dismisses the charges after hearing testimony about his good religious and scholarly behavior and seeing the Bible page with the muddy shoe print (page 25). Why do you think America (represented here by the judge) is portrayed as viewing Jewish study as such an honorable pursuit?
One of the recurring themes in Anna Yezierska’s works is the differences between the “established” Jewish American and the “greenhorn” (the new Jewish immigrant). For instance, Bessie’s suitor expresses the difference between old world values and those of the new world to Reb Smolinsky. “In America they got no use for Torah learning. In America everybody got to earn a living first” (page 48). This statement offers an either/or situation. Do you agree with this statement? If so, how does Judaism continue without Torah learning?
As Sara reaches her boiling point with her father, she realizes that she does not have to accept everything that her father decides for her. Sara realizes the strength that women are allowed. “In America, women don’t need men to boss them” (page 137). What was it about America that enabled women such as Sara and Anzia to be able to stand on their own?
The title of the last chapter in this section is also the title of the book. Mashah uses the term “bread giver” as she despairs because her husband, the bread giver, makes no money. Why do you think Anzia chose this title? Who would you say is the bread giver for Sara and perhaps for Anzia as well?
Book II: Between Two Worlds
There are many difficulties that come with poverty, lacking food not the least of them. However, Sara reflects on her deep desire to be alone, a privilege not allowed to the poor, especially for women (page 158). How does Sara’s desire differ from those of her sisters?
Sara continues to draw from her upbringing even as she rebels against it. One example of this is her need for beauty to push away her poverty (page 161). What other examples focus on this tug-of-war?
Sara chooses to place her own personal priorities over those of her mother and family. As she says to her mother: “I could see you later. But I can’t go to college later” (page 171). This is not an easy decision. Do you think she made the right choice? How do women today continue to face this same challenge?
Sara recognizes the sacrifice she must make to become her own woman. She tells her sister: “Besides, I don’t want to get married. I’ve set out to do something and I’m going to do it, even if it kills me” (page 177). Women of that period who wanted their independence often eschewed marriage—think of Emma Lazarus, Henrietta Szold, and Anzia Yezierska. As Sara herself says: “All great people have to be alone to work out their greatness” (page 186). She asks herself why it seems that a woman must choose between love and knowledge. (page 230) Is this a true statement?
The great irony of Sara’s life is the energy, time, and devotion that she gave to secular learning while despising the same energy, time, and devotion that her father gave to Jewish learning. Do you think she was aware of this irony? Sara’s sisters felt she was lost to them and expressed their anger when Fania said, “Let’s leave her to her mad education. She’s worse than Father with his Holy Torah” (page 178). Do you agree? Was this true because she was a woman and expected to raise a family and earn a living? Was this true because her passion for learning was towards secular education as opposed to religion?
For a short time, Sara is swept away by the comfort of the life promised by her suitor, Max Goldstein. She recognizes the importance of love as she says to herself: “My one need of needs, stronger than my life, was my love to be loved” (page 198). And yet, she knows that she can never be his wife, as she would “only be another piece of property” (page 199). Eventually she chooses her own path, again. Do you think this was the right path for her?
For a moment, Sara recognized the similarities between herself and her father. (Chapter 15) Yet those similarities could not bring them close. What do you think prevented them from being able to admire and respect each other? Why did the words of Isaiah: “I will join the hearts of the parents and the children” (page 203), not come true for Sara and her father?
Book III: The New World
In Sara’s excitement over her own success in college and her future as a teacher, she compares the feelings of this moment with those of love. “Once I had been elated at the thought that a man had wanted me. How much more thrilling that I had made my work wanted!” (page 241). Is this a true comparison?
Father opts to go to the synagogue and pray rather than stay with his terminally-ill wife. He tells her: “I can help you more by running to the synagogue to pray than by staying with you” (page 243). What does this tell you about the father’s theology? What does it tell you about his comfort with interactions with others? Is this discomfort similar to that of Sara, who pushes others away in search of her own “religion”?
When Sara’s mother dies, Sara recognizes that the true essence of her mother had not disappeared but had been inside of her (page 253). Throughout the story, Sara’s existence has centered on her father, whether in rebellion or in acceptance of their similarities. How does Sara realize that her mother has also made an impact on who she has become?
Sara found in Hugo Seelig a balance between the old world and the new. “A Jewish face, and yet none of the greedy eagerness of Hester Street any more…Not like Father with his eyes on the past, but a dreamer who had found his work among us of the East Side.” Are there other ways that Sara found balance in her life?
Sara’s last statement is perhaps her most powerful: “It wasn’t just my father, but the generation who made my father whose weight was still upon me.” What do you think she meant by those words?