The Struggle for Independence in a New World
In Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers, we learn about a struggle between Sara Smolinsky and her father. Her father, an Orthodox rabbi, is stuck in the traditions of the old world and will not tolerate Sara’s longing for independence. This novel takes place in New York’s Lower East Side, where the population mainly consists of Jewish immigrants who have come to America in hopes of living a better life than they lived in the shtetls. In America, for the family’s who still lived by the traditions of the old world, life for the women was no different that life in the shtetls.
Sara and her family had immigrated to America from a village in Poland. According to their Jewish traditions, the only role a woman had in her life was to take care of the family, and make life easier for their husbands. This idea becomes very clear right at the start of the novel. We learn that two of Sara’s sisters, Bessie and Masha, are coming home after being out looking for work so they could earn wages for the family . The daughters of Reb Smolinsky were expected to be the wage earners. Women in Reb Smolinsky’s household are expected to do all of the work required for keeping the family alive. Reb does nothing to earn money or make life better for his family. He is a religious scholar who has devoted his whole life to the study of the Torah, and his family’s job was to make him comfortable. All of the burdens were placed on Reb’s family; he carried none of them. Reb was a “dictator” in the household. When Sara’s sister Bessie brought home a man for the family to meet, Reb kicked him out of the house. He said that this man was not good enough for his burden bearer. He appears to be very reluctant to give up Bessie, since she brings all of her wages home to him, and is a faithful servant. At this point we can see the pain Sara is in. She had no freedom and no choice in her life. Her only choice was to serve her father until she was married, and then continue her life serving her husband. But she wanted more. This was America, where women were allowed to choose how they wanted to live, and were allowed to marry for love, not just marry who their father told them they must marry.
Sara’s inner struggle continued in trying to understand why her father was so harsh on her sisters. Sara’s father successfully married off all of her sisters, but not to men whom they loved. All of the men her sisters brought home who they were in love with were quickly turned away by their father. Reb wanted a wealthy husband for his daughters, so that his daughters would continue to support him and bring wages to the family. Sara did not like the way her sister’s lives were dictated and controlled. She thought that they should be able to choose whom they wanted to marry, and not be forced to marry whom their father chose for them. Sara was disappointed to see her sisters give in to their father’s harshness, but they were stuck in believing what their father preached to them, that “It says in the Torah, only through a man can a woman enter Heaven.”
Sara could no longer stand the harsh treatment from her father. She had to have something in her life to look forward to, not a life long sentence of service to her father and her future husband. She wanted freedom. She wanted independence. She did not want to live the rest of her life in a room with a dirt floor and no privacy. After a heated argument with her father, Sara left her mother and father to begin a life on her own. She began her struggle for independence. She wanted to become a schoolteacher. In her first day away from home, when she stopped to eat a meal, she made the comment “This was the first time I ate by myself, with silence and stillness for my company.” From this statement we know how life was for her up until now. Her whole family lived in one room, crowded with no privacy, but Sara was determined to change all of that. She attended night school and worked as an ironer at a laundry shop. She went through many hard times, struggling to try to get her education and pass the exam to get into college. After passing the exam to get into college, Sara moved to an apartment with a door while she attended college. This was a great achievement for her. She finally had a place of her own, with a door and a window. At this point Sara becomes aware of her freedom and the achievements she has accomplished. She thinks back on her days selling herring on the streets to try to bring home money for her family and realizes the accomplishments she was made to fulfill her dream.
Sara finally reaches her goal of graduating college and becoming a teacher. At her college graduation, she is awarded one thousand dollars for winning an essay contest by writing an essay titled “What College has done for Me”. As soon as she graduated, she bought a new outfit to wear when she was teaching. When she bought that outfit, for the first time in her life she felt successful and wealthy. She got a job at a school not far from where her family used to live, and she couldn’t help but think of her family and how they were doing. She went to visit her dying mother, who was so excited that she lived to see the day that her very own daughter had graduated college and become a schoolteacher.
Sara’s father was not quite as happy to see her. He had disowned his daughter for leaving the family and not supporting him. After the death of Sara’s mother, Reb even wrote a letter to the principal of Sara’s school implying that the school should send part of Sara’s wages to him because she abandoned her father.
Sara never did get out of her obligation to serve and take care of her father. The novel ended with Sara offering to let her father come and live with her so she could take care of him. This novel really illustrates the struggles immigrants who came to this country had to deal with. Like Sara, many other women wanted their lives to have more meaning that they were accustomed to. Coming to America gave money of them the opportunity to achieve their independence, just as Sara did in Bread Givers.
Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (New York:
Persea Books, 1999)