Bread Givers: The Limits of the American Dream
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.
Sara Smolinsky’s Journey to Fulfillment
Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers is the story of Sara Smolinksy, a young Jewish girl, growing up in New York City in the early twentieth century. Even as a young girl, Sara rejects the Orthodox Jewish teachings of her father, a rabbi. She refuses to accept the Torah’s idea that without a man, a woman is “less than nothing” (205). Instead, she embraces American culture. “In America, women don’t need men to boss them” (137). She sets out to find her own life. She sees how the lives of her mother and sisters are dominated by her father and does not want that for herself. “Thank God, I’m not living in olden times. Thank God, I’m living in America! You made the lives of the other children! I’m going to make my own life!” (138). Sara views success as the attainment of individuality through hard work. This is her vision of the American Dream. It contrasts sharply with her father’s traditional beliefs and his desire to be wealthy without working. Still, once Sara does achieve her professional goal, she realizes that without family and love, she is unfulfilled. She discovers that personal success does not necessarily mean happiness and contentment, but is a critical part of developing her own identity.Even as a very young girl, Sara’s quest for self sufficiency and willingness to work hard is evident. One day she decides she is not going to sift through the ash cans for coal. “…that morning, I had refused to do it any more. It made me feel like a beggar and thief when anybody saw me” (7). She does go out later to find coal as she feels guilty for disappointing her mother. The idea of balancing family obligations with her own wishes ends up being an important one in the novel. Sara concludes that she cannot continue as a beggar. In order to help her family, she will work. “No—no! I’m no beggar! I want to go into business like a person. I must buy what I got to sell” (21). With a quarter, she buys 25 herring and sells them on the street for two cents apiece. She feels pride in her work after making a twenty-five cent profit. “Give only a look what ‘Blood-and-iron’ has done” (23).Sara’s father, Reb, refuses to embrace American values. He is concerned foremost with his religion and preaching. He relies on his daughters to provide for him. When his daughter Bessie falls in love with Berel Bernstein, Reb refuses to allow her to marry him because Berel will not give him money to start a business. Berel says, “In America, they got no use for Torah learning. In America, everybody got to earn his living first. You got two hands and two feet. Why don’t you go to work?” (48). Reb replies that he has a head for business, he merely needs the money to start it. Reb later proves himself a non-savvy businessman when he gets scammed into buying a store that is busy when he sees it only because the seller slashed prices to draw crowds. The goods on the shelves are really empty boxes. His response is, ‘This man who robbed me only pushed me closer into the arms of God. Now I know that everything that happens to us is from God, for our good” (125). Sara denounces such unbending faith in God and the beliefs of the Old World and believes instead in the opportunity in America to build up oneself through work and determination.Sara watches as her father marries her sisters off to men they do not love. Bessie is married to Zalmon the fish peddler, who repulses her, because he will pay her father a dowry. Sara’s other sisters, Mashah and Fania, are married off to a diamond dealer and a “cloaks-and-suits millionaire,” respectively. The former turns out to be a fraud and the latter a gambler. Both women end up unhappy. Sara does not want this for herself. “I’d want an American-born man who was his own boss. And would let me be my own boss” (66).While Sara knows what she wants in a man, she finds love difficult. While still a child, she professes her love to Morris Lipkin, Fania’s former boyfriend, by whose poetry she is captivated. When he dismisses her with a laugh, she is crushed. While stomping on all of Morris’s letters to Fania, she says, “I felt I stamped for ever love and everything beautiful out of my heart” (88). For several years, she is able to put love aside to pursue her goals, but she eventually discovers that she needs love in her life in order to be happy.Sara decides to leave her family while only seventeen years old. She can no longer stand being under the control of her father. She needs to find herself, and running away is the only way to do so. “I leaped back and dashed for the door. The Old World had struck its last on me” (138). She first attempts to live with Bessie and then with Mashah, but finds both living arrangements impossible. She is truly on her own. She walks the streets one night, “drunk” with her dreams. She recalls a story of a girl that goes to college and becomes “a teacher in the schools” (155). She experiences hope through independence for the first time. “I, alone with myself, was enjoying myself for the first time as with the grandest company” (157). She finds a small, dingy room to rent, but it is her own, and that is all that matters to her. It has a door that she can close to block out the rest of the world. “This door was life. It was air. The bottom starting-point of becoming a person” (159). Finally relieved of the burden of her father, Sara forms a conception of success. She needs to be independent and possess the capacity to pursue her American Dream. It is only once these qualifications are met that she can grasp the other necessities of fulfillment.Sara demonstrates great resolve in creating her own life. She works ten hours a day as an ironer, takes two hours of night classes, and then studies for another two hours. Her studies are all that matter to her. One day her mother comes to visit her. Sara is thrilled to see her, but when she asks Sara to visit home, Sara replies that she cannot. “I’d do anything for you. I’d give you away my life. But I can’t take time to go ‘way out to Elizabeth. Every last minute must go to my studies” (171). Sara’s mother is concerned that she will end up an old maid, but Sara assures her she will be married one day. “But to marry myself to a man, I must first make myself for a person” (172). Sara needs a sense of individuality before anything else in her life can become truly meaningful.Sara’s commitment to the pursuit of her American Dream is seen by her sisters as crazy. Fania and Bessie also visit Sara, and they want to take her home to see their mother. Sara refuses on account of her schoolwork. Fania cannot believe her and says, “Come, Bessie. Let’s leave her to her mad education. She’s worse than Father with his Holy Torah” (178). Sara is as unwavering with her beliefs as her father is with his, but she knows such willpower is needed if she is to succeed. She listens to how unhappy her sisters are. Without her fierce resolve in the face of all those who doubt and criticize her, she would end up as unhappy as they are.Fania attempts to set Sara up with Max Goldstein. While Sara is put off by his taste in entertainment and obsession with money and material goods, in him she realizes her need for love. “One moment he would say something that would rise up like a sword between us, pushing us apart; and then, at the touch of his hand, the look of his eyes, I forgot all his faults. My one need of needs, stronger than my life, was my love to be loved” (198). Despite her desire to be loved, Sara is able to break things off with Max. Learning is more important to her than is a man who would see her as nothing more than property. Her father cannot believe she has rejected Max. He visits her to denounce her choice. He preaches the Torah’s teaching on a woman needing a man, and says, “Woe to America where women are let free like men” (205). The ideological conflict between Sara and her father cannot be clearer. For Sara, America’s opportunity is what allows her to distinguish herself as a true human being, while for Reb, American values destroy her as a woman. As Sara moves on to college, new challenges confront her. She feels alienated by her peers. She has trouble in geometry. She sees no need for physical education. She becomes enamored with one of her professors who does not have time for her. Still, she gets through. At graduation, she wins not only the essay contest, but finally the acceptance of her classmates. As her name is announced, “…all the students rose to their feet, cheering and waving and calling my name, like a triumph, ‘Sara Smolinsky—Sara Smolinsky!'” (234). College provides Sara with the education she needs to pursue a career, and also with a feeling that she finally is accepted by those around her. She has become a successful individual in the eyes of others.Back in New York, Sara feels pride in her accomplishments.I, Sara Smolinsky, had done what I set out to do. I was now a teacher in the public schools. And this was but the first step in the ladder of my new life. I was only at the beginning of things. The world outside was so big and vast. Now I’ll have the leisure and the quiet to go on and on, higher and higher (241).With her professional goals met, Sara begins to see what she is missing in her life. She finds her mother on her death bed. When her mother passes on, Sara realizes that family is an important element in one’s life. “I had failed to give Mother the understanding of her deeper self during her lifetime. Let me at least give it to father while he is yet alive. And so, everyday, after school, I went to see him” (257). After attaining a realization of self, Sara is able to grow and incorporate other elements of happiness into her life.The final missing element for Sara is love. Sara is not impressed with the teachers she works with. “They were just peddling their little bit of education for a living, the same as any pushcart peddler” (270). The principal, Hugo Seelig, is different. “He had kept that living thing, that flame, that I used to worship as a child. And yet he had none of the aloof dignity of a superior. He was just plain human” (270). Sara finally finds a man with the same love of learning and teaching that she has. As they get to know one another better, they discover all they have in common, including birthplace. Hugo even asks Reb to teach him Hebrew, winning over his approval. Finally, with Hugo, Sara adds the final piece to her life. She does not have perfect happiness, but she has rediscovered her need of family, and has found a man with whom she shares a mutual respect.At the end of the novel, Sara invites her father to live with her so that he may escape his wretched new wife. Sara knows how difficult it will be to live with her father’s constant preaching, as is evinced by his response to her offer.Can a Jew and Christian live under one roof? Have you forgotten your sacrilege, your contempt for God’s law…I must keep my Sabbath holy…But if you’ll promise to keep sacred all that is sacred to me, then maybe, I’ll see. I’ll think it over (295).It would be far easier for Sara to avoid her father and his tyranny, but she has never taken the easy path. For her, success is more than professional status and a loving man. She still feels an obligation to her father. She knows it will be a struggle to live with him. The final line of the novel reads, “It wasn’t just my father, but the generations who made my father whose weight was still upon me” (297). She needed to run away to find herself, but she cannot escape her relationship with her father. As he was shaped by those before him, so is Sara influenced in part by him.In her early years, Sara seeks independence in order to pursue her dream of an education. She does not want to end up in an unhappy marriage like her sisters. She cannot continue living under the Old World ways of her father. She embraces America and all it has to offer. Once she finds herself and creates her own identity, she is able to work others into her life. She finds love, and attempts to make amends with her father. She sees that she cannot be satisfied simply with being a successful teacher. She matures throughout the novel, and as she grows, she becomes more aware of what happiness and fulfillment entail. She is still growing as the novel concludes, but she is confident in the choices she has made, and is satisfied with where they have gotten her. In this way, she finds success.
Unexpected Blessings: Reb’s Positive Influence on Sara
In 1925, American author Anzia Yezierska wrote the book Bread Givers. The story follows a poor immigrant family living in the lower east side of 1920’s New York. Throughout the novel, the family’s four daughters are treated merely as wage-earners by a father (Reb Smolinsky) who refuses to work, spending his days studying the Holy Torah and driving away his daughters’ lovers. He is commonly seen as the antagonist of the novel, and yet without his tyrannical influence, Sara, the youngest daughter and protagonist of the story, would not have been able to succeed and find happiness in America the way that she did. Reb’s unquestionable love of books influenced Sara greatly as she discovered her own interest in reading, which allowed her to successfully become a teacher later in life. Sara mirrors Reb’s best characteristic, his unfailing devotion to his passion–religion; Sara follows in his footsteps, becoming similarly bound to her own passion–education. Reb also surrounded Sara with so much conflict at home, she became used to it, and standing up for herself amidst conflict became one of her greatest skills during adulthood. Finally, Reb single-handedly created a family environment so toxic it drove Sara away from home. A father who was less oppressive than Reb may not have caused Sara to flee, which would have left her trapped in poverty and unhappiness. Though he may not have helped in the ways he intended, Reb’s actions propelled Sara into a success which she could not have achieved without him.
Throughout Sara’s entire childhood, Reb spent the vast majority of his time studying the Holy Torah and his massive collection of other pious texts. He refused to get a job, and stayed at home reading day after day. Though she did not appreciate her father’s lack of income, Sara was undoubtedly influenced by his love of reading when she became impassioned with the idea of becoming educated. As her sister Fania once said of Sara, “Come Bessie, let’s leave her to her mad education. She’s worse than father with his holy Torah.” (Yezierska, 178) As a child, an entire room of Sara’s home was devoted strictly Reb’s massive collection of books. Even when the family was gripped with severe financial problems, Reb had to be forced to give up his reading room so they could rent it out to boarders. He was willing to give up food and basic human necessities in order to keep his books. Later on, when Sara is in college, her work can barely cover the rent of her apartment, much less enough food. However, she keeps studying, mirroring Reb in his unwavering dedication to his passion. Reb’s love of books was something Sara emulated as she grew up.
All the same, Reb’s absolute dedication to his reading was a major source of friction between him and the rest of the Smolinsky family–his refusal to work resulting in a near-constant stream of fights between Reb and his wife. Sara grew up in a home where Reb’s character created an environment of hostility and confrontation; Sara had conflict playing out all around her for over a decade. Even when Reb saw a worried look on his wife’s face, he would grow angry. “‘Woman! When will you stop darkening the house with your worries?’” (10) Reb frequently grew angry in such a manner, but likely as a result of his divisiveness Sara became a person who never shied away from conflict later in life. Numerous times, Sara benefited greatly from not backing down in after people stood in her way. When she left home and was in search of a place to live, the landlady of the perfect apartment wouldn’t sell to Sara because she would burn through gas reading at night. But Sara didn’t shy away after she was refused, she convinced the woman to give her the room. The very next day, Sara goes out looking for a job and is similarly turned away from an ironing job on account of being too small. But Sara once again puts her foot down and demands that the boss watch her iron so she can prove she is able to do it, and she successfully gets the job. Had Sara not been so used to confrontation as a result of her being raised by Reb, at that point in time she would have been jobless and homeless, but instead she had a job and a roof over her head. Sara continued to stand up for herself in college when she was forced to participate in a gym class that left her too tired to both work outside of school and study. Sara brought up the issue to the Dean and successfully excused herself from the class, instead of meekly accepting what she was told to do. As Sara’s spouse Hugo comments later on, “. . . it’s from him (Reb) you got the iron for the fight you had to make to be what you are now.” (279)
However, the conflict that taught Sara not to fear confrontation also played a role in getting her to leave home and seek out her own life. Reb’s controlling nature, his patriarchal views on women, and the way he arranged loveless marriages for each of her sisters all contributed to a home life that was so unpleasant that Sara was propelled from home. This home life fed her intention of making a life for herself that would allow her to escape the stifling lifestyle in which she had been. In one particularly memorable scene after Sara refuses a suitor chosen by Reb, he says, “It says in the Torah: What’s a woman without a man? Less than nothing—a blotted out existence. No life on earth and no hope in heaven.” (205) This kind of cruel beratement helped Sara realize that under Reb’s influence, she would not have a life she would want. A father that was merely half as bad, or even a kind and caring father, may very well have resulted in Sara complacently accepting her life as it was instead of igniting her determination to change her situation. In this sense, everything that Reb did, tyrannical though it was, actually helped Sara.
Though seen as the antagonist, Reb Smolinski was still a key part of what allowed Sara to be successful and find happiness, and his despotism catapulted her towards a good life. She gained so much good from his bad that she was even able to forgive her father and invite him to live in her home. The title of the story, Bread Givers, is often interpreted as a tribute to the people who gave Sara aid and sustenance at key moments in her life–they are metaphorical “bread givers.” However, one of the main messages behind the novel is that in order to succeed one needs to face adversity and use it to build up power. Reb is a tyrant in Sara’s life–he ruins the lives of her three sisters and tries to ruin her own. However, Sara takes this horrid upbringing and finds sources of strength in herself, building off of her father’s actions. Sara takes her tyrant of a father and turns him into a “bread giver,” as well. Yet, Sara’s three sisters had their lives gutted by Reb and they are certainly not better off as a result of his influence. This shows that while it is possible and indeed very important to grow from hardship, it is not something that happens to people automatically. Whether it was watching her older sisters sink into unhappiness, or perhaps her own drive to make her own life, Sara broke the cycle and instead of being bent low by Reb she used his cruelty to make her stronger. Bread Givers is a rags-to-riches story warning us that we must not be defeated by those who are cruel to us, but rather turn their influence into “bread,” into a force that is also helpful in our lives.