For many immigrants, coming to America was an opportunity to leave their home country in hopes of finding a better life in a new land. In this vein, Anna Yezierska writes about the struggles of an immigrant Jewish family living in New York’s Lower East Side during the 1920’s in her novel Bread Givers. The Smolinsky family had high hopes, as the father says: ”Don’t you know it’s always summer in America? And in the new golden country, where milk and honey flow free in the streets, you’ll have new golden dishes to cook in, and not weigh yourself down with your old pots and pans” (Yezierska 9). Unfortunately, this golden life was not what most immigrants came to when they arrived in the “New” world. Yezierska expresses the specific struggle of an early 20th-century immigrant family in America, while at the same time showing more broadly how it is important to adapt to new cultures and environments in order to ensure success.
The story marks a complete revolution. The father Reb, a Rabbi, comes to America to bring his Holy Torah to the New World. He attempts to live within the style of the “old life,” studying his holy scripture while the burden of supporting the struggling family falls upon his wife, Shena, and their daughters. As his oldest three daughters Bessie, Mashah, and Fania age he turns their true lovers away, and fixes marriages that aid him in financial gain while making these women miserable. Reb attempts to succeed in business in America and fails terribly, sticking to his faith loyally. After watching her father’s faith and stubbornness ruin her family, the youngest daughter, Sara, goes to college and removes herself from that life. After his wife dies, Reb tries to make financial gain again by marrying another woman, Mrs. Feinstein. In turn she ends up trying to exploit his daughters, and after spending all of his money she leaves. In anger, Mrs. Feinstein writes a letter to the principal of the school that Sara works at, Hugo Seelig. This letter ends up bringing the two together and Sara falls in love. After hearing of her father’s hardship, Sara reaches out to him and offers him a place to live. Ultimately, his adherence to Orthodox Jewish principles and culture and his refusal to adapt to the American ideal became a key part in his failure, bringing his family down with him.
Throughout the entire novel, Reb consistently allows his old lifestyle get in the way of his family’s new life, even in somewhat small fashions. In the beginning of the novel he is reluctant to give up his study room, and move his books out into the kitchen so as to be able to rent out a room in order to make money. At this time the family also didn’t have money for food, and all he could offer was, “What is there to worry about, as long as we have enough to keep the breath in our bodies? But the real food is God’s Holy Torah” (Yezierska 11). Reb doesn’t work, and is persistent that women are here to work for their husbands so that they can get into heaven. When Reb turns away his daughters’ lovers, primarily to fix their marriages for his own financial gain, he ruins their chances at a future or success. His hubris is his persistence in not changing his cultural values; this quality is seen when the he says, “You yet speak to this liar, this denier of God! Didn’t I tell you once a man who plays the piano on the Sabbath, a man without religion, can’t be trusted? As he left you once, he’ll leave you again” (Yezierska 63) about Jacob Novak, Mashah’s lover. Even after Sara moves and goes to college to become a teacher, her father still remains the same.
After denying Max Goldstein because of his love for material goods, Sara feels a need to go home and see her father. When she in fact returns, her father goes on a rant about how bad of a mistake she had made. Sara states that she didn’t see her father as just a “tyrant from the Old World where only men were people. To him I was nothing but his last unmarried daughter to be bought and sold” (Yezierska 205). This is when Sara realizes that she needs to break from Reb’s culture and embrace American culture. After Sara meets Hugo and falls in love, she goes to find her father. When she returns to Hester Street, she finds her neighborhood overrun by poverty. She can’t locate her father and decides to leave when she bumps into an old man selling gum. She knocks the gum off of his tray and picks it up; the old man is her father. When he is almost on his deathbed, she takes him back to her home and gets him medical care, and he survives. This makes Sara realize how ingrained her father is in his old culture; she says, “I suddenly realized that this woman was necessary to him. He could not live alone in a boarding house any more than in the Old Men’s Home. He needed a wife to wait on him” (Yezierska 291). Sara was the only person in the family to change her ways, and was also the only one to succeed. When she brings Hugo to meet her father, she states, “I suddenly realized that I had come back to where I had started twenty years ago when I began my fight for freedom. But in my rebellious youth, I thought I could escape by running away. And now I realized that the shadow of the burden was always following me, and here I stood face to face with it again” (Yezierska 295). The Smolinsky family thus illustrates the struggles of an immigrant family in poverty during the early 20th century; what it also illustrates is the story of a girl who changed her ways after watching her entire family fall into despair because of not letting go of their old culture.
Yezierska tells a brutally graphic story of an impoverished Jewish family living in New York City during the Roaring Twenties. What it also expressed was the fact that we must adapt to survive, even if that means changing our assumed ways. Reb the father tried to keep his old ways and completely destroyed his own life, the life of Shena, and the lives of his three oldest daughters. Sara the youngest daughter watched this happen, and separated herself from a displaced culture and changed for the better. Even though Sara was the least devout, and followed few of her father’s principles, she became the most successful. The message is that when going to a new place you must adapt or else you will fail, and bring those around you down with you.