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Bread Givers – Book Review

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:

Have you read and reviewed this book? If so, please leave me a link in the comments so I can add your review above.

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10 Comments

  1. January 30, 2011    

    Sara’s voice was one of the things I liked best about Bread Givers. Pearl Abraham, a modern ex-Hasidic Jewish author, has said that when writing Yiddish dialogue in English, she always tries to maintain the structure and rhythm so that we never lose sight of the fact that these characters are speaking another language. I think Yezierska was doing the same thing and the “translation effect” was entirely intentional.

    Still, I can see why you felt like the novel was still in draft form. Frances and I both feel that Bread Givers would be most successful with a middle school-aged audience. The storytelling is very straightforward with clear-cut characters and a lot of drama, and I was disappointed that Yezierska wasn’t deeper or more nuanced. But, as you said, this book could be a springboard for more discussion, especially since these issues still exist today.

  2. January 30, 2011    

    I have had this book on my shelf for the longest time, and was not totally sure what it was about. I picked it put of my daughter’s discard pile as the title was intriguing to me. After reading your review, I think it sounds rather interesting, and in some ways reminds me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I am sure they are rather different books, but something of the flavor seems similar to me. Thanks so much for your informative and honest review. I may have to read this soon.

  3. January 30, 2011    

    El Fay: Thanks for sharing the info re: structure and rhythm…I actually did start to feel it must be intentional because it was so obvious that I did not think an editor could have missed it! I agree that the reading audience would best be middle-school – very simplistic. But, ultimately, I didn’t think this was a “bad” book at all – in fact I think it does serve a worthy purpose as we discussed.

    Heather: I’ll be interested to see what you think of this one (hurry and read it!!) I think A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a more polished book, but the themes are similar.

  4. January 30, 2011    

    I read Frances’s review of this book – she had a similar reaction in terms of the characters seeming stereotypical and some disappointment in the writing. I am hosting the Immigrant Stories Challenge and this book obviously fits right into that so I will add it to the suggested reading for the challenge. Thanks for the review!

  5. January 30, 2011    

    Wendy, I agree with E.L. Fay that Yezierska’s language was intentionally designed to mimic the immigrant English of the neighborhood. However, I also agree with you that the rest of the writing’s flaws stem from the story being stereotypical and simplistic. Sorry this first Wolves read of the year turned out to be such a so-so experience for you, but thanks for joining us anyway!

  6. January 31, 2011    

    Colleen: You’re welcome – I think despite my reservations about the book, it is a worthy read about the immigrant experience…and perfect for your challenge!

    Richard: No worries about the book choice 🙂 I hope to join you again in March for Conversation in the Cathedral (a book I’ve had on my TBR pile for a very long time!).

  7. January 31, 2011    

    I think one of the more interesting things about the book is it’s similarity to Yezierska’s real life. Unlike Sara she really did seem to escape her old life, although she felt a compelling need to keep returning to examine it. Like E.L. Fay one of the things I liked best about the book was Sara’s voice (although I didn’t particularly feel attached to Sara!)

  8. January 31, 2011    

    Sarah: I agree – the fact that this was rather autobiographical was interesting to me too.

  9. February 2, 2011    

    Yes, the stock characters were a bit much for me. I kept wanting them to “break out” and change, but each one (with the exception of Sara) went on submitting and obeying Reb Smolinsky.

  10. February 3, 2011    

    Shannyn: I know what you mean – I wanted someone (other than Sara) to stand up to this bully. Even the mom, who stood up to him, caved in if he said or did the right thing.

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