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.
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