Having immigrated to the US from Russia in 1890, Anzia Yezierska, experienced first hand the repression of women on a scale that’s almost unimaginable. Her father, a Talumac scholar, established his American home in the Jewish ghetto on New York’s Lower East Side. The severe poverty, hunger, hardship, and blatant sexism, had a lasting impact on Yezerska. In what is considered to be a closely autobiographical work, Bread Givers, Yezierski, tells the story of the Smolinsky family with Sara, the youngest of 4 sisters, at the center. Through Sara’s eyes, we witness what must have been an insurmountable struggle for equality, love and identity by Jewish women in similar circumstances.
Bread Givers begins with the introduction of the Smolinsky family: Sara, sister’s Bessie, Masha and Fania, Rabbi Smolinsky and his wife. The hierarchy of the family is quickly established. The Rabbi has the front room of the apartment all to himself. Surrounded by his holy books, he reads and studies all day, while the daughters look for work to support him. According to tradition, this arrangement has long been accepted and practiced as per Jewish Law. Additionally the Rabbi often reminds his wife and daughters that women will be accepted into heaven only because they were wives and daughters of men. To fully explain the subservient role women were expected to occupy, Yezierski writes, “Women had no brains for the study of God’s Torah, but they could be 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 in 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.”
Even the meager amounts of food that the family had to share were proportioned unfairly. Often the meals consisted of watery soup and stale bread. The Rabbi’s wife dutifully skimmed the top of the soup for fat and served him first, with little more than colored water left for the females. Having been relegated to working for her father (at the age of 10) who refused to get a job, constant reminders that women were unqualified for heaven unless through a man and receiving left overs that left her starving and malnourished, Sara accepted her place in the world, as a lesser being, for the moment.
With arranged marriages in this culture being the norm, the Rabbi denied his daughters any hope of marrying for love as he bartered them off one by one. First was Bessie who brought home Berl Bernstein. She wanted very much to marry Berl but the Rabbi insisted on a dowry since Bessie was his top earning daughter and she gave every last cent to her father, who tagged her “The Burden Bearer.”
Soon afterwards, Masha, referred to as “The Empty Head”, fell in love with a piano player, Jacob Novack. However, neither Jacob’s father nor the Rabbi approved. Yezierska writes, “And so Masha, weak, dumb, helpless with the first great sorrow of her life, gave into father’s will.”
Fania’s fate was much the same when she fell in love with poet Morris Lipkin. Lipkin is completely denied by the Rabbi who is now determined to marry off his daughters to men of his choosing.
The marriages arranged by the Rabbi meet with disastrous ends. His daughters are heartbroken and forced to exist in loveless marriages to men who neither appreciate them nor treat them well. The young Jewish women of this time were surely devastated with disappointment.
Once her sisters were married and out of the house, Sara is lost. As the sole bearer of the Rabbi’s rants and the constant bickering between her parents, the Smolinsky household has become too much for Sara. Following a disastrous business decision by the Rabbi that leaves to relocation out of the city, Sara decides to break free exclaiming, “My will is as strong as yours. I’m going to live my own life. Nobody can stop me. I’m not from the old country. I’m American!” And off she went, back to New York to pave her own way though the road ahead would prove to very difficult one.
In the city, Sara earnestly looked for work and for lodging. A single women, alone in the city, she was met with suspicion and rejection. She does find work as an ironer, a pitiful room to rent and starts attending classes 5 nights a week. Her grueling schedule is composed of 10 hours of work, 2 hours of class and 2 hours homework each day. Even when ordering food at a cafeteria, she feels invisible, as the server barely makes eye contact and deliberately serves her a lesser portion than the man behind her in line. She is also an outcast amongst her fellow laundry employees with their nice clothing, makeup and boyfriends. Having finally arrived at college, Sara continues to be treated coldly. She has been rebuffed and condemned by her father, of the old world, and yet rejected as an outsider in the new one.
Finally, Sara gets the break she needs and wins a large sum of money for an essay written just prior to graduation. The prize allows Sara to arrive at her new teaching position, well dressed, well educated and with a renewed since of confidence. She reconnects with her family, just as her mother is dying. Though her father remarries, Sara financially supports him in his final years and Hugo Seelig, Sara’s principal and husband, welcomes the Rabbi into their home. Her life has come to full circle. From being forced to work to support her father to voluntarily, albeit reluctantly doing so, Sara has returned to norms that she had so long resisted. Yekierska writes, “I suddenly realized that I had come back to where I had started 20 years again when I first began my fight for freedom. But in my rebellious youth, I thought I could escape by running away. And now I realize that the shadow of the burden was always following me and here I stood face to face with it again.“ So Sara’s life moves, as a loving wife and a dutiful daughter, with one foot still in the old world and one firmly in the new, a struggle that surely played out many times for female Jewish immigrants.