|Lincoln T. Eggertz
In Bread Givers, Anzia Yezierska takes us as readers on a journey of hardship, oppression, personal choice, and perseverance through the eyes of a young Sara Smolinsky. Along the way, Yezierska gives us her version of the American Dream and what it takes to achieve it. By breaking away from cultural tradition, family order, and male hierarchical values to pursue her dreams, Sara is forced to endure the adversity of identifying as an Americanized Jewish immigrant while trying to assimilate to American society outside of the ghetto, being rejected by her peers, while also moving up to a higher socioeconomic status in the 1920’s in order to realize her personal liberation and happiness achieved through higher education. This independence ultimately allows Sara to find someone to love on her own terms instead of someone else’s and circles her back to some of what she had to abandon to pursue her dreams.
Early in the first chapter Yezierska introduces the male hierarchical values that the father, Reb Smolinsky has brought with his family from Poland to New York City, “The prayers of his daughters didn’t count because God didn’t listen to women. Heaven and the next world were only for men. Women could get into Heaven because they were wives and daughters of men.” (Yezierska, 9) This helps us understand exactly where women stand in the eyes of Reb Smolinsky and the cultural traditions of his old country. These hierarchical values will have a presence in almost every male character we meet in Bread Givers. In the first book, Yezierska uses a long standing American cultural tradition still highly valued in today’s society to highlight the family order of the Smolinsky’s, “We sat down at the table. With watering mouths and glistening eyes we watched mother skimming off every bit of fat from the top soup into Father’s big plate, leaving for us only the thin watery part.”(Yezierska, 10) Reb is so deeply entrenched in the male hierarchical values of traditional Jewish culture that he shows no remorse in taking the best part of a meal to himself while his wife and daughters “tremble with hunger,”(Yezierska, 11).
We are given our first glimpse of Sara’s desire for independence in chapter one after Reb is arrested and the family is basically hitting rock bottom, “Memmeh! I begged. Let me only go out to peddle with something. I got to bring in money if nobody is working.”(Yezierska, 20) Yezierska also shows us Sara’s will to succeed under the pressure of helping the family make ends meet and the satisfaction she gets from choosing to do something outside of what she normally does, “I counted my greasy fifty pennies. Twenty-five cents profit. Richer than Rockefeller, I felt.”(Yezierska, 22) This is an introduction to the differences between Sara and her sisters and also the similarities between her and her father. Sara shows independence and ingenuity when she rushes out of the house with a quarter and buys a pale of fish. She is then able to sell them on the street corner for a one hundred percent profit. She does this out of desperation and the love she has for her family. But the love Sara has for herself and what she wants for her own life eventually transcends the love for her father and mother, which allows her to pursue her personal dreams and what she believes will make her happy.
Yezierska effectively uses Reb Smolinsky throughout the novel to emphasize how cultural traditions of Jewish immigrants can often supersede individual happiness. Each one of Rebs’ daughters are able find someone that they independently fall in love with. Shortly afterwards, Reb uses cultural traditions to drive the men out of his daughter’s lives. Bessie is Yezierska’s first example. When Berel Bernstein comes to visit Bessie, he ends up propositioning Reb to marrying her without providing a dowry. His suggestion is met with opposition, “But Bessie brings me in every cent she earns. When a girl like mine leaves the house the father gets poorer, not richer. It’s not enough to take my Bessie without a dowry. You must pay me yet.”(Yezierska, 47) The cultural tradition this quote is referring to is that normally a father will pay a soon to be husband a dowry as a gift for marriage and taking one of the daughters “off of his hands”. “Taking from her my hands! Only girls who hang on their fathers neck for their eating and dressing that the father has to pay a dowry, to get rid of this burden.”(Yezierska, 47) But in this instance, Reb has manipulated tradition to his benefit, as he does throughout the storyline. Reb is consistently benefitting from his daughters hard work while he studies the Holy Torah. During Reb and Berel’s discussion, Yezierska also reveals that Berel Bernstein’s intentions with Bessie are actually very similar to Reb’s in regards to the value he places on a wife, “I look ahead on the future. I want a wife for a purpose. I must open myself a shop. And Bessie could help me with the ‘hands,’ while I do the cutting.”(Yezierska, 47) There is no mention of love, companionship or happiness. If we take this interaction between Reb and Berel and examine it, we can see it reinforces the idea that in order to find happiness, simply moving from one person to the next will not solve the problem if the traditional cultural values stay the same. Even though Bessie believes that she would have been happy with Berel, it is very likely she would not have been. Yet the idea of escaping the oppression of her father and the ability to make her own choice help her believe she would have been. A similar sequence of events takes place with each one of Reb’s daughters until they are subsequently married off to someone who met only his approval.
Once Sara has left home, and is unable to stay with her not-so-well-off sisters, Yezierska begins to outline an idea of what personal happiness is to Sara (and Yezierska herself) through a dream of higher education and ultimately teaching, “A school teacher-I! I saw myself sitting back like a lady at my desk…It was like looking up to the top of the highest skyscraper while down in the gutter.”(Yezierska, 155) By taking these first steps towards independence Sara becomes fixated upon pursuing her goal of education. The “blood and iron” characteristic that she inherited from her father begin to work to her advantage. Her simple goal of becoming a “person” is assisted by her strong will, “Like a drowning person clinging to a rope, my tired body edged up to that door and clung to it. My hands clutched at the knob. This door was life. It was air. It was the bottom starting point of becoming a person.”(Yezierska, 159) This small room embodies the starting point of who Sara wishes to be. An independent, productive, respected member of society that can only be achieved through hard work, commitment, and education. All of these values subvert Jewish cultural traditions of the time for women.
In Chip Rhodes critical essay “Education as Liberation: The Case of Anzia Yezierska’s ”Bread Givers”, Rhodes argues that “Sara’s discovery of “true” self reads more like a lateral move from one ideological matrix-the family and church-to another-the school.”(Rhodes, 297) He explains that an education, for reasons not addressed in the book, is Sara’s vessel to becoming a “person” in the world. That money is not her motive behind pursuing and education, but to fit in and be accepted and respected by society. When I consider Sara’s constant determination to pursue an education, I would say that it stems from the oppression she experienced throughout her childhood, which she believes ruined the lives of her sisters and mother and the stubbornness and will power she got from her father. The ability to think for herself and make her own decisions, especially regarding love, is the freedom she desires. And education provides that for her within American society.
Assimilating into American society becomes one of Sara’s main antagonists as the story transitions into her life while in school. She seeks acceptance from her peers and co-workers at times due to loneliness and lack of friendship, and at other times to simply be a part of American culture. In her attempts to fit in Sara is often ridiculed for being an immigrant or for being too studious, “After that I was shut out like a ‘greenhorn’ who didn’t talk their language. When they gossiped beaux, or dances, or the latest styles, their mouths snapped tight when I got near. When they planned picnics or parties, I was left out.”(Yezierska, 180) This exclusion pushes Sara deeper into her relationship with education, “ I threw myself more desperately than ever into my studies. My one hope was to get to the educated world, where only the thoughts you give out count, and not how you look.”(Yezierska, 183) This rejection drives Sara to fixate on her belief that once she reaches college she will be accepted by “the inspired minds of great professors and educated higher-ups”(Yezierska, 184) Through Sara, Yezierska is suggesting that in the social circles of higher education, materialistic values are not as high of a priority as they are to those who are less-educated and who base their judgment of people on the influences of consumerism.
Max Goldstein’s entrance into Yezierska’s novel allows us to see how Sara is now beginning to think for herself and separate her emotions from her thought process. As Sara gets to know Max, he shows his narrow field of interest in only money. Instead of being caught up in the whirlwind of a possible love interest, she is able to rationalize with herself and determine that Max Goldstein might not be the best fit for her. Her ability to make these choices by her own free will provide her with a sense of empowerment that gives her satisfaction. “Hours I sat there, my head in my hands, wondering why. Slowly, one piece of a broken thought began to weave itself together with another. If I’d let myself love him, I’d end by hating him. He only excited me. But that wasn’t enough. Even in the ecstasy of our kisses, I knew he was not my kind.”(Yezierska, 200) This experience again directs Sara’s passion back to education. The source of her ability to maker her own choices and accomplish her goals.
In “Cultural Mediations in Bread Givers” by Gay Wilentz a great point is made about the similarities of Sara and Reb, “To some extent, Sara is as fanatical as her father, and her rift with him and her community is tied to this ideal vision of America and American women.”(Wilentz, 37) Bessie, Masha and Fania all display the same submissive characteristics of their mother. Sara is different. She stands up for herself just as Reb does. Albeit they choose to make their stands for very different values, no one else in the family does this in the novel. Reb’s need to enforce his tyrannical values upon his daughters drives Sara away from him as a young girl and again as a college student. Wilentz also points out, “Sara succeeds in the Anglo-American world she longed to penetrate, but like Yezierska, Sara finds the rewards empty because of the loss of her cultural identity.”(Wilentz, 38) As Sara assimilates into modern American culture, she moves further away from her traditional Jewish culture.
In book three, after Sara’s mother passes away and her father remarries only thirty days after her death, Sara finally finds love. Hugo Seelig is a man that she respects and who has similar cultural heritage. I believe that Seelig helps Sara once again identify with her cultural heritage after she had tried for so long to distance herself from it. The respect she has for Hugo disassociates the contempt she has developed for it during her years of poverty and oppression, “That mean letter, instead of turning me against you, drew me to you. I knew you weren’t that kind. 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 you to be what you are now”(Yezierska, 279) It isn’t until this point that Sara realizes that her desire and will came from her father instead of in spite of him. This is what allows her to go to his aid when he is ill after she has a chance run in with him in the streets.
With Bread Givers, Anzia Yezierska delivers her version of the American dream. And to achieve this version of the American Dream she suggests that it requires breaking away from traditional cultural values and leaving things behind to realize something better. The oppressive tyranny of Reb is what drives her out. Through her will and determination Sara is able to accomplish these goals and relate back to her cultural heritage through her relationship with Hugo and her father. In essence retrieving some of the things she had to give up in order to pursue her dreams of a higher education.
Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers. New York: PerSea Books, 2003
Wilentz, Gay. Cultural Mediation and the Immigrants Daughter: Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers. Autumn 1991 – Autumn 1992 www.Jstor.org
Rhodes, Chip. Education as Liberation: The Case of Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers
Science and Society, Vol 57 No 3 Fall 1993, 294-312. www.Jstor.org