Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska is a compelling book, not only in its vivid descriptions of life in Manhattan during the 1910s-1920s, but also its look into an Orthodox Jewish family, and its standards. It is a coming of age story, of the youngest of three children.
The familial patriarch is Rabbi Smolinksy, and his wife is Shenah, who is in awe of him, despite her nagging manner. His interactions, decisions and doctrine influence his daughters, Fania, Bessie, Mashah, and Sara in ways that mold their lives, in a negative manner. The three older daughters go along with his dogmatic and fanatical whims and attitude. His manipulations, rants and raves eventually cause them to give in to his dictates. The youngest daughter, Sara, learns at the age of ten, about the family dynamics, and how each daughter was expected to turn over their entire income to support the family. She learns what she wants early in life, due to her father’s looming presence and demands. She is very strong-willed. Family life is seen through her eyes, and they are the eyes of a three-dimensional person, a person of substance and depth.
She begins to sell herring at the age of ten in order to help support the family. In the back of her mind she is determined to be independent, and not to be lead through life by her father’s decisions. His decisions are often determined due to the fact that he does not want to even partially try to assimilate into American life. Rabbi Smolinsky is ignorant in the area of business dealings, and the dealings of life in general. He is bound by Eastern European tradition, and religious tradition, which he enforces with his harsh vocalizations. No man is good enough for his older daughters, despite the fact that they want to marry particular individuals. He finds fault with all of them, and he ends up choosing who they marry, and they do not live happily ever after. His determinations and final edicts are not necessarily positive ones for his daughters, but somehow decisions that gain him some monetary dowry or enhancement.
Rabbi Smolinsky lives by the text of the Talmud, in every aspect (Don’t get me wrong, I believe the Talmud is an essential aspect of Judaism). In fact the Talmud is quoted through much of the book to justify why he acts the way he does. He uses religion to enhance his decisions, and is fanatical about vocalizing the teachings, to the extent that hourly and daily life is disrupted. He is a tyrant, a bully, a man of many words, words that are emotionally disgruntling. He hangs on tightly to every thread of his Eastern Europe culture and life style, unable and unwilling to adjust to change. While his wife and four daughters struggle to earn money to survive with the basics, he deals with his studies, unaware of the reality of life. They beg him to work, even part time, he refuses, and goes back to his studies, even if it means they go hungry. He is a pampered individual, and his every desire is what rules the family. He is not a responsible person, and his family suffers greatly. I found him to be pathetic, in the way he used and manipulated his daughters for his own benefit.
Sara, meanwhile, has decided she will not succumb to her father’s domination, and his demands. She will not let him marry her off to someone she doesn’t love. She leaves home at the age of 17, finds a dark room to rent, works, saves money, and puts herself through college. She is a woman of strength and determination, which is what allows her to reach her goals. She has an identity, at a young age, and is discontent with the way the females of the family are treated. Yet, with her independence, she is often bound to her familial ties. Love hate relationships were strong within the pages.
Yezierska is brilliant in her writing, strong in her ability to depict tradition and assimilation into the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Tradition and modern America do not blend together in a positive fashion, in this novel. Sara is not the ideal of the Rabbi’s daughter.
Yezierska weaves a story that incorporates struggles, both emotional and mental, within the pages. Women are considered to be less than life, to be used, manipulated and abused for the gain of the family patriarch. Female identity and immigrant assimilation are major forces that Yezierska evokes within the pages. The conflicts are vividly written, and the reader feels the emotions behind the words. It is a gripping look into the early twentieth century, and Jewish life within the confines of immigration and steadfast ideals.
Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers is a masterpiece, and an inspiring one at that. Sara literally works her way through high school, and learns to speak correct English. Yezierska brings honor, determination and strength to Sara, and shows how through all of Sara’s sacrifices, she was able to reach her dream. She rose from poverty to a position of respect, and did it on her own. She was able to conquer her fears and accomplish her goals.
The masterful writing of Anzia Yezierska has given us an inspiring character to admire. The book has much historical value, giving the reader a perspective on the Jewish immigrant experience, and bringing the reader insight into the life of Jewish individuals trying to assimilate. The past is ever present, no matter how hard we try to leave it behind. One world was trying to compete with another, and not always successfully, as culture clashes were abundant.
I highly recommend Bread Givers. It is an extremely illuminating novel, on many levels.
February 21, 2013 – 11 Adar, 5773
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