Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska
Anzia Yezierska. Bread Givers. New York: Persea, 2003 (latest publication). Author Information
Born in 1885 in Maly Plock, Poland into a conservative Jewish Family
Immigrated to America with her family in 1890, and there she took on the more “American” name Harriet Mayer
Began her early adult life as a wife and mother. Her first marriage was annulled after six months. She then married her long time love. And had children. In 1914 she left her husband and moved in with her daughter where she worked as a social worker. Once gaining her independence she was encouraged to by her sister to focus on writing.
Yezierska found refuge in writing about the struggles of Jewish and Puerto Rican immigrants.
Sarah Smolinsky- the main character, and the story is told from her point of view. She is the daughter of rabbi Reb Smolinsky and her mother Shena. Sarah is very independent and at times rejects her parent’s advice to find her own beliefs.
Shena- Sarah’s mother who is extremely dedicated to her husband Reb. She struggles to keep the family together, both financially and emotionally, so that her husband may continue his passion for studying the Torah and maintaining his devout religious devotion to God
Reb- Devout religious rabbi who put s his religion and his own needs before the families. He is very conservative and expects to be honored and served by the women in the house. He can be seen as selfish and stubborn because he tends to make unreasonable decision by refusing to listen to his wife.
Fania- The middle daughter of Shena and Reb. She tried to stay devoted to her father by marrying Abe Schmukler, a compulsive gambler, he had chosen for her. However she leads a miserable life.
Bessie – the oldest daughter that works very hard at supporting her family. It is clear that she puts her families needs before her own. Part of her enjoys taking care of others, but at times, another part of her fantasizes about a different life. Bessie ends up marrying Zalmon (the fisher seller) at the wish of her father.
Mashah Smolinsky- Spirited, beautiful and at times thought of to be vain (by her family). However she transitions throughout the book and ends up being very quiet. She struggles to make ends meet while taking care of her children, but she still takes pride in her home even though she may not be financially stable.
Plot and Summary
The story is set in New York City during 1890. It depicts the struggle of a conservative Jewish family trying to survive in a large city with very little income. The main character Sarah battles with her father’s beliefs because he believes that the man should be honored, as a result, many times he eats the good food leaving his daughters hungry. Even at times when the family’s home is in jeopardy he refuses to get a job because he believes that he should focus on his studies of the Torah. From Sarah’s perspective her father is portrayed as selfish and ignorant. It is clear that Reb is Sarah’s antagonist.
Sarah transforms throughout the story because she begins to realize that she does not agree with her family’s way of life. Sarah is in search of a passion (just as her father has), but being a female it is believed that her job should be a wife and mother. She resists her father, mother, and sister’s wishes, and decides to find her life for herself. As a result she decides to enter into college to become a teacher. Due to her actions she is basically rejected by her father and chooses an education over health. The story depicts many instances where Sarah was either homeless or starving, but still studying.
– A Good Question for Thought- Ask students what they would do if they were in this situation? Has the value of an education changed? Make a connection between the student’s idea of an education and Sarah’s.
Sarah’s mother dies and her father expects her to return home to take care of him. At this point in the story it is clear that Sarah is torn between her future of happiness and taking care of her family. She tries to do both, but her father is not thankful and causes Sarah to realize her education is what she should focus on, because her father will never be satisfied. In the end Sarah graduates from college and finds a job as a teacher, and the book also alludes to her having a love relationship with the principal of the school.
- Question for Thought-Was Sarah right in choosing an education over her father’s wants? Can a woman during this period have the best of “both” worlds, an education and a family? Do you believes Reb ever realized the impact of his actions? What are some similarities between Reb and Sarah?
Anzia Yezierska moved to America with her family around 1890. There she lived with her family in the Jewish Ghetto on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It seems that Anzia’s account of the life of Sarah is very similar to that of her biography. The story contains true accounts of what life was like for a Jewish immigrant family. Although this is considered a fictional story many of the accounts of Sarah’s life, such as struggles in getting an education and the treatment of her father can hold relevant of a life during the time.
Annotated Bibliography Ellis Island - History. (n.d.). Ellis Island. Retrieved July 16, 2014, from
This site contains the history of immigration into the United States. It contains a timeline that could be referenced for specific dates, and it shows the progression of immigration and how it changed throughout the years. This site gives specific information about New York during the 1800’s.
The Second Generation from the Last Great Wave of Immigration: Setting the Record Straight. (n.d.). migrationpolicy.org. Retrieved July 16, 2014, from http://www.migrationinformation.org/article/second-generation-last-great-wave-immigration-setting-record-straight/
This site discusses the struggles that immigrants faced and some ways that they tried to improve their conditions. I can use the information as a way to parallel non-fiction stories of hardship to the stories. I can draw connections between Sheena, and mothers true accounts of struggling. This site also depicts characteristics of the second wave of immigration. I can have students compare and contrast the differences.
Significant Jewish Books - URJ. (n.d.). Significant Jewish Books - URJ. Retrieved July 21, 2014, from http://urj.org/learning/my/books/?syspage=article&item_id=1606 This website is written from a Jewish perspective. It pinpoints important quotes form the text. Provides summary, and also poses questions. This can be used as a source for essential questions from the text. It provides information, as well as, downfalls of certain characters. Because the site is from a Jewish perspective the site depicts downfalls of the characters from that perspective. For example, what may be accepted in modern day society is not accepted in the Jewish culture.
Selected Images of Ellis Island and Immigration, ca. 1880-1920. (n.d.). Selected Images of Ellis Island and Immigration, ca. 1880-1920. Retrieved July 16, 2014, from http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/070_immi.html This site contains multiple pictures of early immigrants. This can be used as an emotional appeal as a way to capture the student’s attention. It can also be used as a way to draw parallels between the text and the pictures. For example, Zalmon the fish peddler can be compared to a fish market in the pictures. The scene of Sarah determined to make money by selling herring on the street.
Other Topics I Plan to Explore Further:
Jewish culture and tradition
Jewish communities in NYC
Educated Jewish women during the late 1800’s/early 1900’s