Symbols and Characters of “Bread Givers”.
One of the significant features of Jewish history throughout many centuries was migration. From the ancient pre-Roman times to medieval Spain to the present days the Jews were expelled from the countries they populated, were forced out by political, cultural and religious persecution, and sometimes were motivated to leave simply to escape economic hardship and to find better life for themselves and for their children. One of the interesting pages of Jewish history was a massive migration from Eastern Europe to America in the period between 1870 an 1920. In that period more than two million Jews left their homes in Russia, Poland, Galicia, and Romania and came to the New World. The heaviest volume of that wave of Jewish emigration came between 1904 and 1908, when more than 650 thousand Jewish emigrants came to the US. The Eastern European Jews fled from pogroms, religious persecution and economic hardship. We can learn about those times from history text books, but a better way to understand the feelings and thoughts of the struggling emigrants is to learn a story from an insider, who herself lived there and experienced first hand all the challenges and hardships of the emigrants’ life. Anzia Yezierska’s novel “Bread Givers” is a story that lets the reader to learn about the life of Jewish Emigrants in the early Twentieth Century on Manhattan’s lower East Side through the eyes of a poor young Jewish woman who came from Poland and struggled to break out from poverty, from tyrant old traditions of her father, and to find happiness, security, love and understanding in the new country. The book is rich with symbolism. Different characters and situations in the novel symbolize different parts of the emigrants’ community and challenges that they faced. The characters range from the father, the symbol of the Old World, to the mother who symbolizes struggles and hopelessness of the women of the Old World, to the sisters and their men, who together represent the choices and opportunities that opened before the young generation of the Jewish emigrants in the New World.
The father of the storyteller, Sarah Smolinsky, is an orthodox rabbi, Mosheh Smolinsky, with rigid old-fashioned conceptions, who cannot or simply does not make an effort to realize himself in America and spends his days poisoning lives of his family by preaching his useless “wisdom”, marrying off his daughters to men they don’t love and living off wages the daughters earn. Father’s old-fashioned sexist views about women clearly represent the Old World with its outdated traditions, and life-crippling laws. Practically everything he preaches is contradicted by his actions and later proves to be false. For example, when confronted by his wife about unpaid bills, he preaches that money is not important and that spiritual life guided by God’s laws should be a goal of every human. Yet, later, when the time comes to merry off his daughters, the only thing he cares about is money. He does not care about his daughters’ feelings. Their desires and opinions mean nothing to him. He thinks that women are dumb and are not capable to pick a right spouse. He also thinks that they don’t deserve to make a choice and their happiness in marriage is not important. He vies all women, including his Daughters and wife, as brainless slaves, who are born to serve their men. “It says in the Torah, only through a man has a woman an existence.” he proclaims. So he sees the marriages of his daughters simply as business transactions between him and the highest bidder. The goal of the transaction is to provide the new husbands with servants and give him, the father, a material benefit in the future.
He calls Sarah “hard heart” and blames her for deserting him, not working in his store, and not sending him part of her wages. He says that she is selfish, heartless, and does not remember all the “good” things that he did for her. Again, his actions contradict his words. In real life he was the selfish, lazy tyrant who refused to work, who did not support his family in any way, who put all the troubles of life on his wife’s shoulders and sent his little daughters to work, so they could support him. He did not care that his children did not receive a decent education and because of that might not have a chance to succeed in life, he did not care that that his wife’s life became a sorry existence, that primarily consisted of worries about how to make ends meet. He never took action to make his family’s life easier. He found an excuse, his religion, to do nothing, to exploit his wife and children, to abuse them emotionally by his ” preaches of wisdom”, and by constant reminding that he was a man – a superior master, and they were dumb women, born to be his servants.
His own intelligence and ability for good judgement are questionable, however. He proves to be a fool on several occasions. First, he wastes all the money that his father in law left him. Then he marries off his daughter Mashah to a swindler, pretending to be a diamond dealer. Then he takes all his family’s money and overpays for a grocery store that almost has no merchandize in it. He is too arrogant to bring his wife to evaluate the store and too foolish to do it himself. He prefers to waste the money to helping his wife and daughters. His vises represent the vises of the Old World, such as poverty lack of education, outdated traditions, lack of human rights for women, and hopelessness of their situation. The hypocrisy of his preaches show that many Old World views and laws are false and thus should be rebelled against and left behind.
Unfortunately, women of the Old World did not have the option to rebel. The Jewish society of Eastern Europe would not tolerate it. So the women had no choice but to be servants of their men and their situation was hopeless. Sarah’s mother represents the hopelessness of the Old World. She was born to a relatively wealthy family, had a happy childhood and grew up to be a beautiful, spirited and happy young woman. But the happiness was not meant to last because her father decided to marry her off at the age of fourteen. She naturally had no voice in the decision and was married to a man who her father perceived to be most educated. The “educated man” turned out to be good only for wasting her father’s money, fathering four daughters and leaving the burden of raising them completely on her shoulders. On top of that he had an audacity to blame her for all his troubles and to teach her his useless “wisdom”. In the end, the mother from a spirited young beauty, who loved to dance cozachek, became an old burnout with a dead soul, gray unhealthy face, and lifeless eyes, that projected nothing but sadness and hopelessness. The tragedy of her life was that there was nothing she could do about it, there was no way out.
Her children, however, did have a way out. They could rebel; they could go against their father’s will, get an education and become self-sufficient and independent. American society would accept it and that together with other things was the promise of the New World. The second generation of emigrants: Sarah and her sisters represent the new choices that Eastern European Jews had in America. Unlike their mother, they could chose to go different ways. The choices were not easy. They required strength, courage, determination and stamina but nevertheless they were real.
The simplest choice was to carry on the parents’ traditions, obey them and to suffer through life much like the mother. That’s the choice that Sarah’s sister Bessie took. She did not find an inner strength to rebel against parents and wound up married to Zalmond, the fish-peddler, who was an ugly old man with a lot of children, and who suffered, like many other lower East Siders, from poverty, financial insecurity, and the struggle to become someone in the new country. Poor Bessie served to his father until she was thirty, suffered humiliation of his preaches and at the end could not find courage to run away. She simply went from one servitude to another, even more harsh. Instead of an old master, her father, she received a new one, Zalmond.
Mashah has made a similar choice only was a little more lucky. She did have to put up with bad treatment from her swindler husband but at least he was young and she did not have to raise stepchildren. Fania faired even better. She went away to California. Though feeling very lonely with her businessman-gambler husband, she at least broke out of poverty.
Sarah makes a radically new choice. She realizes that she can rebel and succeed, and she has strong will to do it. The choice to rebel and to get education was a completely new choice offered by the New World. The choice was far from easy. She suffered from hunger, poverty, alienation, and humiliation of the ghetto but her dreams kept her spirit alive and kept her going. College experience was also not easy. She was different from other students because she was poor, plain looking, and probably because she was Jewish. So she struggled to fit in. She never did and suffered a great deal from loneliness. Sarah’s experience, I think, is somewhat typical for a determined emigrant who chooses not to give up, to be strong, and to succeed. Her experience and represents the struggle and ambition of the young Jews from the lower East Side, who in the twenties received education and became successful members of American society. Her experience represents the ambition of the Jews who went Hollywood and established a whole new industry, the Jews who came from poor uneducated families and became lawyers, doctors, and businessmen.
Not every Young Jew became successful through an education. Many became economically successful by making a quick fortune through legal, somewhat legal and often clearly illegal ventures. Fania’s husband and Max Goldstein represent that part of young Jewish community. Those young men substituted education with sheer aggressive drive, burning motivation, quick wit, and often willingness to break the law if it was profitable. As Max Goldstein said, “?It’s money that makes the wheels go round. With my money I can have college graduates working for me?I can hire them and fire them. And they, with all their education, are under my feet, just because I got the money.”
Through the lives of different characters the author tells about struggles and sacrifices that any emigrants have to face when they come to a new country and try to get on their feet. The first generation usually gains the least, because older people already have deeply rooted cultural traditions and language barrier that do not let them to assimilate and to feel fully at home in the new place. Just like Sarah’s parents in “Bread Givers” the majority of first generation older emigrants that I know feel somewhat alienated and disadvantaged in America. Many of them were na?ve and thought that America was a Golden Amadina where “money grows on the trees”. Many were intelligent enough to realize that they were going to a tough land of opportunities where they would have to fight and struggle for a spot under the sun. But those who were realistic came here anyway, because they hoped for a better future for their children who could fully benefit from new opportunities, ethnic equality, and democracy that the New World had to offer.
“Bread Givers” by Anzia Yezierska