More and more I began to think inside myself, I didn’t want to sell herring for the rest of my days. I want to learn something. I want to do something. I want some day to make myself for a person and come among people. – from Bread Givers, page 66 –
Sara Smolinsky lives in a crowded, dreary tenement apartment on the east side of New York City with her Orthodox rabbi father, her hard-working mother and her three sisters. The youngest of her siblings, Sara watches as her tyrannical father berates and verbally abuses them. One by one, Sara’s sisters give up their dreams of marrying for love and find themselves matched to men who are gamblers, liars, and misogynists. Sara’s determination and iron will to make something of herself causes her to run away at age seventeen with the dream of going to college to become a teacher. Yet even when she achieves her goal, she is unable to completely free herself from the past.
Bread Givers is a novel about the clash of traditional and modern; the immigrant experience in the 1920s; the myth of the American Dream; hypocrisy in religion; and the dawn of women’s rights. Set in New York City’s east side, the book explores the horror of poverty and the drudgery of work in the sweat shops and on the streets to earn a few pennies for a loaf of bread and a bit of soup. Hard work, unhappiness, and poverty take their toll on each character in turn.
Beauty was in that house. But it had come out of Mashah’s face. The sunny colour of her walls had taken the colour out of her cheeks. The shine of her pots and pans had taken the lustre out of her hair. And the soda with which she had scrubbed the floor so clean, and laundered her rags to white, had burned in and eaten the beauty out of her hands. – from Bread Givers, page 147 –
Sara narrates her story beginning at the age of ten and continuing through her teens and into adulthood. Often the language of the novel is awkward with unusual word choices – reading like a work in translation. It was hard for me to understand if this was intentional (as a way to demonstrate the stilted English of an immigrant) or unintentional, but the end result was a novel that felt unedited or in draft form.
A review of Bread Givers would not be complete without an examination of one of the central characters. Reb Smolinsky, Sara’s father, is a man drenched in the piousness of his religion and filled with hypocrisy. He preaches that material gain on earth will make Heaven unattainable, yet he clings to his daughters for the money they bring in to support him and ruins his family with a bad business deal which he sees as a get rich quick scheme.
“What! Sell my religion for money? Become a false prophet to the Americanized Jews! No. My religion is not for sale. I only want to go into business so as to keep sacred my religion. I want to get into some quick money-making thing that will not take up too many hours a day, so I could get most of my time for learning.” – from Bread Givers, page 111 –
Reb Smolinsky is a tyrant, a bully, and a misogynist. His views of women are steeped in tradition and rigidly held. When it comes to his daughters, he does not consider their happiness, but instead looks at what they can offer him.
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. Women had no brains for the study of God’s Torah, but they could be the servants of men who studied the Torah. Only if they cooked for the men, and washed for the men, and didn’t nag or curse the men out of their homes; only if they let the men study the Torah in peace, then, maybe, they could push themselves into Heaven with the men, to wait on them there. – from Bread Givers, page 9 –
But, despite the flaws in Reb Smolinsky, he does manage to give his youngest daughter the will and determination to seek her own happiness. When Sara flees her horrible home life and strikes out on her own, she learns something about sacrifice to achieve her goals. She also begins to appreciate the traits in her father which she now sees in herself.
I had it from Father, this ingrained something in me that would not let me take the mess of pottage. – from Bread Givers, page 202 –
Anzia Yezierska lived a very similar life to her protagonist Sara. Brought up in abject poverty as a Polish immigrant, she fled her family at age seventeen to make a life for herself. In Bread Givers, perhaps her most autobiographical work, she explores the themes of her own childhood and young adulthood.
Bread Givers is a simple and familiar story of rags to riches. This is not a book which blew me away with its writing (in fact, the writing is, in many ways, flawed), but I do think it offers a glimpse into the immigrant experience in America. My biggest complaint is that the characters are stereotypical: the father is too evil, the mother too downtrodden and sacrificing, the sisters too compliant to the old world traditions, the heroine too successful at finding her happiness. Despite this, I do think Bread Givers will appeal to some readers who are interested in immigration and feminist issues during the early part of the twentieth century as it provides a backdrop to a larger discussion.
I read this novel as part of The Wolves Read-A-Long. Members of that group have provided some very good reviews of this book:
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