By: Anzia Yezierska
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: March 2023
Reviewed by: Diane Lunsford
Review Date: June 26, 2023
Anzia Yezierska’s classic novel, Bread Givers, first published in 1925, rises to the surface again in 2023, and light is shone once more on the story of Sara Smolinksy, the youngest daughter of an Orthodox rabbi.
Sara Smolinsky is approximately ten years old at the beginning of the book and one of Reb Smolinsky’s four daughters. She is resourceful and determined toward her contribution to maintain a roof over the Smolinksy family’s heads. It is the 1920s and the Smolinsky family lives in abject poverty on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Bessie, the oldest daughter is often reminded by Reb that she is well on her way to being an ‘old maid.’ Fania, second to the oldest, struggles daily to find work; yet none of the shops are hiring. Reb’s pet name for Mashah, Sara's other sister, is ‘Empty-head.' However, Mashah in unphased by his insults. She is beautiful, and that’s all that matters to her. She selfishly squanders every cent she can get her hands on to complement her beauty. Sara’s mother knows her place and responsibility in life: to serve their father hand and foot every waking moment of his life. Reb has only one love, and that is his love of the Torah and all it represents. Women in his view, are only worthy to bear children, cook and clean for their husband, and essentially worship the ground he walks on daily.
Aside from studying the Torah during his every waking moment, Reb’s mission is to marry his daughters off one by one. He reminds them daily that they are to provide for him and to support him always. He will select the husband and will do his due diligence to be sure they have the financial means to support him. It doesn’t matter if the daughter has no love for daddy’s pick. As long as they understand he has the final say, all will be right in the Smolinsky household. Bessie is enamored with Berle Bernstein, but this will not do. Reb has already decided on Zalmon, the fish peddler for her, and she is eventually married off to a life of labor in the fish market and raising the gaggle of Zalmon’s children from a previous marriage. Abe Schmukler is Reb’s pick for Fania. He is an extremely successful cloak and suit seller, and who cares if she is whisked away to the far reaches of California with her new husband? As long as the money comes back to Reb, have a good life. Masha’s beauty is barely contained by Mo Mirsky; the intended husband Reb decides to be her betrothed. He is a diamond dealer and all Masha’s father can see is dollar signs. Sadly, Mo’s riches didn’t turn out to be quite what they seemed. Lastly, there is Sara. She has hopes and dreams of making something out of her life. She wants to go to college and become a teacher. She will not acquiesce in any way to the plans Reb has for her. She is after the American Dream and to make her mark in this new world without a man by her side. What Reb was unable to see was his youngest daughter was his one apple that didn’t fall far from his tree. The road that lies ahead for both of them was one that was paved with more than a few misguided intentions.
I had never heard of this book, and when asked to read it, I was intrigued by the forward written by Deborah Feldman. Over the first handful of pages, she sets the tone of her attraction to this book, nuanced by her very succinct opinion. She was introduced to the book when she was attending Sarah Lawrence College at the age of twenty. As the forward steps to her experience after reading the book (and her personal connection upon first learning about it), she lays out her opinion of what the ‘American Dream’ means to her: "...There is a great and uncomfortable truth in Yezierska’s masterpiece that may have been willfully or unwittingly overlooked by its earlier readers: that the story of the melting pot is a lie, that the American dream is a fairy tale, which, by its own logic, would require the immigrant to completely dissolve into society. To cling to any shred of one’s identity would mean withholding oneself from this dissolution. How did I first come to believe the myth of America as the identity to encapsulate all identities, when in fact it effectively erases or stigmatizes them..." (Page xiii) This was quite a powerful observation through word placement and certainly inspired me to read on. Anzia Yezierska passed away in 1970, but I believe if she were alive today, she would have much more to write about her experience as it relates to the American dream. We live in a time today where global unrest is ever-present no matter where one might look to reflect on this premise. Bread Givers is a body of work that should be required reading in primary educational institutions. It is a phenomenally well-written account that portrays humility, reality, and most assuredly accomplished prose across its pages. There is a wealth of thought-provoking moments, and it has inspired me to go back and read some of Ms. Yezierska’s other works.
Quill says: Bread Givers is a provocative body of work that will linger within one’s soul long after the last page has been read.