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October 22, 2014 | 28th Tishrei 5775

Bread Givers

By Anzia Yezierska

Bread Givers
By Anzia Yezierska
(Persea Books)

Discussion Guide by Rachel Rembrandt

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About the Book

The goldene medina, the Golden Land, the land of streets paved with gold: this was America to many Eastern European Jews who lived in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. They dreamed of escaping desperately poor conditions and anti-Semitic pogroms to live in the land about which they had heard stories of the easy life. Hundreds of thousands immigrated to the United States looking for those golden streets, only to find crowded and dirty conditions in the Lower East Side of New York. Living in tenement houses, working at menial jobs in sweatshops, they tried to find a better life for their children. Eventually, most of them did.

Of the many books written about the experiences of the American Jewish immigrant, most were authored by men. Anzia Yezierska was one of the few women who wrote stories about the lives of women as they struggled to find their own identity. Bread Givers, one of the most widely read and respected of these books, offers a glimpse into the life of Sara Smolinsky as she grows from a young child into a strong and independent woman. Through Sara and the themes of this book we begin to understand the struggles of American Jewish immigrant women: the differences between men and women, between old world and new world values, between rich and poor, between dependency and independency, and between religion and assimilation.
The book consists of three sections. A brief synopsis of each and questions for discussion follow:

Introduction

Although the book was originally written in 1925, it, along with most of the other writings of Yezierska, was neglected for many decades. Not until the feminist movement and renewed interest in the immigrant experience did her books return to the public eye. Thus in 1975 Alice Kessler Harris wrote an introduction to this most autobiographical of Anzia’s stories. Harris explores not only Anzia’s life, but also the world of strong-willed, fiercely independent women like Anzia during an era in which such women were rare. This introduction is an interesting look into the historical and sociological life and time of the Jewish American female immigrant and can be helpful in putting the story of Sara Smolinsky into perspective.

Book I: Hester Street

This section tells the story of the Smolinsky family—father, mother, and four daughters. The story is seen through the eyes of the youngest, Sara, who describes the struggle of living on potatoes and not much more. The father is a scholar who spends his time studying Jewish texts, while the women are expected to earn a living. We see the inch-by-inch improvement of the family’s life, as even a clean table linen becomes a treasured reward for hard work. We watch as each daughter finds love, loses love, and then is married off by their father in an effort to gain financial security. And we feel the pain of Sara, nicknamed “Blut und Isen” (Blood and Iron) as she exerts her independence from the dominance of her father’s old-world values and eventually runs away.

  1. Sister Mashah values beauty more than employment, which causes anger in the family. As her sister Bessie said: “No wonder Father named you ‘Empty-head.’ Here you go to look for work, and you come back with pink roses for your doll face” (page 3). Both sisters wish to escape the poverty of their surroundings, one by improving the appearance of their hovel and the other by improving their financial situation. Who do you think is most productive in enabling that escape?
  2. A running theme throughout the book is the idea that the man’s desire to study religious texts was more valued than the woman’s desire for a level of basic comfort. This concept is shown most clearly when the Smolinsky family came to America carrying only the father’s books and no bed or pots or pans. Why do you think the mother allowed her precious items to be left behind?
  3. Despite the anger that Sara often expresses for her father’s selfishness in his studies, there is also reference to the glory of study (page 16). Why do you think that, despite the hardships the women must endure in order for the father to study, they still see the light of sacred study and still hear the music of holy words?
  4. The difference between men and women for many Jewish families of this time is referenced on page 9: “The prayers of his daughters didn’t count because God didn’t listen to women…Women could get into Heaven because they were wives and daughters of men.” Why is reading this opinion important for us today? Though the mother continues to support her husband, she says sarcastically, “And woe to us women who got to live in a Torah-made world that’s only for men” (page 95). How was Sara different from her mother and her sisters? How did their attitudes reflect their life choices?
  5. Sara first tastes independence when she earns her first twenty-five cents (page 22). With that money, she could have run away from the despair she found at home. Instead she chooses to share her joy with the family. Why do you think she chose family over freedom in this first moment?
  6. When Reb Smolinsky is brought to trial for slapping the landlady, the judge dismisses the charges after hearing testimony about his good religious and scholarly behavior and seeing the Bible page with the muddy shoe print (page 25). Why do you think America (represented here by the judge) is portrayed as viewing Jewish study as such an honorable pursuit?
  7. One of the recurring themes in Anna Yezierska’s works is the differences between the “established” Jewish American and the “greenhorn” (the new Jewish immigrant). For instance, Bessie’s suitor expresses the difference between old world values and those of the new world to Reb Smolinsky. “In America they got no use for Torah learning. In America everybody got to earn a living first”(page 48). This statement offers an either/or situation. Do you agree with this statement? If so, how does Judaism continue without Torah learning?
  8. As Sara reaches her boiling point with her father, she realizes that she does not have to accept everything that her father decides for her. Sara realizes the strength that women are allowed. “In America, women don’t need men to boss them” (page 137). What was it about America that enabled women such as Sara and Anzia to be able to stand on their own?
  9. The title of the last chapter in this section is also the title of the book. Mashah uses the term “bread giver” as she despairs because her husband, the bread giver, makes no money. Why do you think Anzia chose this title? Who would you say is the bread giver for Sara and perhaps for Anzia as well?

Book II: Between Two Worlds

On her own, Sara discovers that she has the ability to decide her own fate. Through sheer determination, she finds a job as an ironer. She rents her own room and works tirelessly to make it seem less drab, dirty, and poor. She saves every penny to take classes at the local high school. Sara finds and then loses a man who wanted to make her someone she couldn’t be. Finally, she fulfills her dream of attending college. Throughout this period, Sara sets out to better herself through hard work, dedication, and devotion to her dreams; in this she is able to succeed.

  1. There are many difficulties that come with poverty, lacking food not the least of them. However, Sara reflects on her deep desire to be alone, a privilege not allowed to the poor, especially for women (page 158). How does Sara’s desire differ from those of her sisters?
  2. Sara continues to draw from her upbringing even as she rebels against it. One example of this is her need for beauty to push away her poverty (page 161). What other examples focus on this tug-of-war?
  3. Sara chooses to place her own personal priorities over those of her mother and family. As she says to her mother: “I could see you later. But I can’t go to college later” (page 171). This is not an easy decision. Do you think she made the right choice? How do women today continue to face this same challenge?
  4. Sara recognizes the sacrifice she must make to become her own woman. She tells her sister: “Besides, I don’t want to get married. I’ve set out to do something and I’m going to do it, even if it kills me” (page 177). Women of that period who wanted their independence often eschewed marriage—think of Emma Lazarus, Henrietta Szold, and Anzia Yezierska. As Sara herself says: “All great people have to be alone to work out their greatness” (page 186). She asks herself why it seems that a woman must choose between love and knowledge. (page 230) Is this a true statement?
  5. The great irony of Sara’s life is the energy, time, and devotion that she gave to secular learning while despising the same energy, time, and devotion that her father gave to Jewish learning. Do you think she was aware of this irony? Sara’s sisters felt she was lost to them and expressed their anger when Fania said, “Let’s leave her to her mad education. She’s worse than Father with his Holy Torah” (page 178). Do you agree? Was this true because she was a woman and expected to raise a family and earn a living? Was this true because her passion for learning was towards secular education as opposed to religion?
  6. For a short time, Sara is swept away by the comfort of the life promised by her suitor, Max Goldstein. She recognizes the importance of love as she says to herself: “My one need of needs, stronger than my life, was my love to be loved” (page 198). And yet, she knows that she can never be his wife, as she would “only be another piece of property” (page 199). Eventually she chooses her own path, again. Do you think this was the right path for her?
  7. For a moment, Sara recognized the similarities between herself and her father. (Chapter 15) Yet those similarities could not bring them close. What do you think prevented them from being able to admire and respect each other? Why did the words of Isaiah: “I will join the hearts of the parents and the children” (page 203), not come true for Sara and her father?


Book III: The New World

Having won a prize at graduation, Sara returns to Hester Street flush with money and the prospect of her future as a teacher. After six years away from her family, she returns just in time to be at the side of her dying mother. Although she tries to help her father, his insistence on marrying another woman so soon after her mother’s death pushes Sara away from him again. At the school, Sara becomes close to her principal. Together they determine to help her father. Sara’s story thus ends as it began, with her endless struggle to do what is expected of a daughter while retaining her own sense of self-worth and determination.

  1. In Sara’s excitement over her own success in college and her future as a teacher, she compares the feelings of this moment with those of love. “Once I had been elated at the thought that a man had wanted me. How much more thrilling that I had made my work wanted!” (page 241). Is this a true comparison?
  2. Father opts to go to the synagogue and pray rather than stay with his terminally-ill wife. He tells her: “I can help you more by running to the synagogue to pray than by staying with you” (page 243). What does this tell you about the father’s theology? What does it tell you about his comfort with interactions with others? Is this discomfort similar to that of Sara, who pushes others away in search of her own “religion”?
  3. When Sara’s mother dies, Sara recognizes that the true essence of her mother had not disappeared but had been inside of her (page 253). Throughout the story, Sara’s existence has centered on her father, whether in rebellion or in acceptance of their similarities. How does Sara realize that her mother has also made an impact on who she has become?
  4. Sara found in Hugo Seelig a balance between the old world and the new. “A Jewish face, and yet none of the greedy eagerness of Hester Street any more…Not like Father with his eyes on the past, but a dreamer who had found his work among us of the East Side.” Are there other ways that Sara found balance in her life?
  5. Sara’s last statement is perhaps her most powerful: “It wasn’t just my father, but the generation who made my father whose weight was still upon me.” What do you think she meant by those words?

About The Author
The story of Bread Givers and the story of Anzia’s life have much in common. Anzia was born the youngest of nine children in a shtetl near Warsaw around the middle of the 1880s (no one, including herself, ever knew the exact year). At about 15, Anzia and her family immigrated to New York’s Lower East Side. With only two years of elementary school, Anzia went to work in various menial jobs, including work in sweatshops, factories, laundries, and as a maid. All the while, her father studied the Jewish sacred texts, and her brothers pursued higher education.

Her sisters married early, but Anzia had different goals. Rebelling against her father’s values and expectations for women, she won a scholarship to Columbia University, faking a high school diploma to gain admission. She earned her degree as a teacher and worked in an elementary school. During that time she married Jacob Gordon and immediately annulled the marriage. Less than a year later, in 1911, she married again and gave birth to a daughter, Louise. During those years Anzia wrote her first story, “The Free Vacation House,” about an overworked immigrant mother. In 1916, Anzia divorced again and moved to San Francisco, eventually giving up her daughter.

Shortly thereafter, she returned to New York to teach again and met John Dewey, the famous educator and philosopher. Their passionate but probably unconsummated romance lasted two years, during which he encouraged her to write and publish. From then on, her life was consumed with writing stories from her life experiences.

Anzia’s most anthologized short story, “The Fat of the Land,” was chosen as the best short story of 1919. The next year her first collection of short stories, Hungry Hearts, was published and brought her to the attention of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. This book and her first novel, Salome of the Tenements (1923), both became movies, which have been lost. Her stint in Hollywood lasted only a short time, as she felt too far away from the source of her inspiration, the immigrant experience.

Back in New York, she wrote three novels in quick succession, Bread Givers (1925), Arrogant Beggar (1927) and All I Could Never Be (1932), inspired by her relationship with John Dewey. For the next two decades she worked for the Works Progress Administration’s Writers Project, cataloguing trees in Central Park. She did not publish another book until 1950, when she wrote her fictionalized autobiography, Red Ribbon on a White Horse. She continued to write book reviews for The New York Times and lectured until her death at about age 90 in 1970. Renewed interests in women’s rights and immigrant experiences brought her works back into the public eye.

Suggested Readings:
By Anzia Yezierska

  • Arrogant Beggar, introduction by Katherine Stubbs. Duke University Press, 1996.
  • How I Found America: Collected Stories of Anzia Yezierska. W W Norton, 1991.
  • Hungry Hearts. Penguin USA, 1997.
  • The Open Cage: An Anzia Yezierska Collection. W W Norton, 1994.
  • Red Ribbon on a White Horse: My Story. W W Norton, 1988.
  • Salome of the Tenements. University of Illinois Press, 1996.

By other authors

  • Antin, Mary, The Promised Land (1912). Penguin Classics, 1993.
  • Cahan, Abraham, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). Penguin Classics, 1993.
  • Cahan, Abraham, Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of Yiddish New York (1898). Dover, 1979.
  • Roth, Henry, Call It Sleep: A Novel ( 1934). Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992.


Rabbi Rachel Rembrandt serves as regional educator for the Northeast Lakes Council/Detroit Federation, Union for Reform Judaism.

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