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Bread Givers is a 1925 novel by United States author Anzia Yezierska; it tells the story of a girl growing up in an immigrant Jewish household in New York City. Her parents are from Poland in the Russian Empire.
Bread Givers, a Jewish-American female coming-of-age story written by Anzia Yezierska, begins with 10-year old Sara Smolinsky. She lives with her father, Reb, her mother, Shennah, and her three older sisters, Bessie, Fania, and Mashah, in the Lower East Side of New York city in a tenement. The Smolinskys are destitute, with the five women struggling for money to simply survive, and Reb devoted as an Orthodox male to the study of the Torah, Jewish sacred texts. The opening chapter hints at the struggle between Sara, who yearns for American independence, and her father, who clings to traditional Jewish culture.
The following three chapters portray Reb's domination of his daughters. Sara's three sisters fall in love, but their father rejects their choices, used to families having arranged marriages with the parents' deciding. Reb sees to his financial goals with the marriages, but the daughters have very unhappy lives. Bessie marries Zalmon the fish-peddler. Mashah is wedded to Moe Mirsky, a man pretending to be a successful diamond dealer, but he is just a middle man. He spends his money on showy clothes and lets his family go hungry. Fania marries Abe Schmukler, a gambler who had attracted her affection when flush and shows her off for hi sown benefit. Seeing all this, Sara decides her father will not make her marriage decision.
The next chapters recount financial misfortune as Reb is hoodwinked at business. The tension between Reb and Sara escalates quickly when she moves with the family to Elizabeth, New Jersey. She works in his store, but must confront his lack of business sense. Despite his failures, Rebe does not take any advice from his wife and Sara. Eventually, Sara moves back to New York City and decides to become a teacher.
While living with her parents, Sara had been within the first generation Jewish-American culture of new immigrants. At college, she encounters mostly students from the majority American Christian culture, which has been urbanized for generations. In order to pay for school and get good grades, Sara must ignore her family, to work and study. She wants to fit in and learns to talk, dress and act like her American peers. She leaves college with her teaching degree and $1,000, which she won in an essay contest.
Feeling successful, Sara returns home to find her mother fatally ill. After her mother's death, her father remarries but learns that his new wife, widow Mrs. Feinstein, is after his late wife's lodge money. Sara and her sisters, still furious over their father's treatment of them, become enraged at his quick marriage. They refuse to help him when his new wife spends all his money and declines to work. Sara goes back to Manhattan and starts teaching.
Mrs. Feinstein is not satisfied with Reb's money and wants more from his daughters. She is angry that Sara is avoiding her father, so she writes a nasty letter to the principal of the school where Sara is teaching, Hugo Seelig, to try to discredit her. The principal sympathizes with Sara and tells her so. Gradually the two start to date; he is also a Jewish Polish American. They marry.
Sara feels she has left her old life completely behind and wants to find a way to give back to the community. She finds her father practically on his deathbed, lying in the gutter and selling chewing gum. Sara asks her father to come live with her and Hugo. Reb is concerned about whether he can live with Sara. He says he will come if they "promise to keep sacred all that is sacred to [him]." In the end, Sara is still haunted by her father and his culture.
The novel is set in the 1910s and early 1920s in New York City. By the 1920s, 2.2 million Eastern European Jews had immigrated to New York City. They encountered a culture clash between the Americanized Jews (largely from cities in Germany), who had become established by the end of the 19th century, and the Eastern European Jews, from more rural and conservative Orthodox Jewish communities. They also had to deal with the unfamiliar majority culture. During this period, new immigrants dealt with poverty, unsafe working conditions, sweatshops and the beginning of the women's movement. For Jewish Americans, the 1910s and early 1920s were a time of the beginning of the Jewish women's movement, economic gains and entry into the middle class, and a shift among many toward secular Judaism. This last aspect was also influenced by the growth of Zionism in Europe and the US.
The story takes place in three distinct settings: the tenements on New York's Lower East Side, the town of Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Sara's college (not named but outside the immigrant setting). Many immigrants settled with or near family and neighbors in the tenements of New York's Lower East Side, replicating their European communities. The top floor of these walk-up buildings represented those of the lowest status, because of all the stairs to climb.
After the move to Elizabeth, New Jersey, the family interacts with a wider variety of people, becoming more exposed to general American culture as they interact with customers. Sara and her mother miss the close support of the community of women from the New York City tenements. Sara becomes entirely isolated from her original culture after she leaves for college.
Judaism in Bread Givers
Reb and Sara express the clash between traditional and assimilated Jews. Reb Smolinsky relies on teachings from the Talmud for his life view; these are often referred to in the text. He often uses the sacred texts to justify his domination of his wife and daughters. Critics have suggested that Bread Givers was influenced by the stories of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, and the roles of his wife and daughter. Reb is clearly associated with Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa and Shenah with the Rabbi's wife. While Sarah is clearly associated with the Rabbi's daughter, she represents the antithesis.
Opinions and interpretations
Most critics agree that Bread Givers is a coming-of age story. However, Nicholas Coles explains how it fits into the genre of working-class literature as well. While some scholars believe the ending of the novel represents Sara's success in American culture (Evelyn Gross-Avery, Melanie Levinson), other scholars believe the ending explores the notion that Sara can not escape her Jewish heritage (Steven J. Belluscio, Renny Christopher, Gay Wilentz).
Many of the above critics view the novel as autobiographical because of its parallels to the facts of Yezierska's life. But Carol Schoen notes the discrepancies and describes Yezierska as an unreliable narrator about her own history.