Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers

Sara Smolinsky is a young Jewish immigrant living in a poor area of New York City with her family in the early 20th century.  Her father, a scholar of the Torah, rules his house like a “tyrant more terrible than the Tsar from Russia,” using quotes from scripture to justify his every decision and personal belief (on women being allowed admittance into Heaven: “Only if they cooked for men, and washed for men, and didn’t nag and curse the men out of their homes, only if they let the men study the Torah in peace, then, maybe, they could push themselves into heaven with the men, to wait on them there.”).

Sara’s three sisters are weak-willed in the face of their father’s tyranny and bend eventually to his desires (mostly concerning marriage), and as Sara grows up in this environment, she deeply senses the unfairness and the cruelty of her father and sees the unhappiness that stems from his decisions.  While she is a good, hardworking, (mostly) dutiful (she has a habit of back talk) daughter, she finally finds the strength to break free from her father’s reign and his Old World values and attempt to transition into a daughter of the New World, an educated woman, not in fear of being labeled an old maid.

Skimming through the introduction, I learned that this novel is partially autobiographical, which I had assumed, but had had doubts about it.  I never really connected with Sara.  Of course I wanted her to achieve her dreams, but I never doubted she would escape her father and find her place in the world.  And I cringed at a great number of things her father said to his family.  But these characters never felt real to me, I couldn’t feel them breathing, they were predictable and almost stock-like.  Perhaps this is because of the over saturation of these types of tales in society today: parents are unreasonable and stuck in their own ways, so child rebels and starts out on his or her own.  Perhaps it’s because I’m not Jewish or very well versed in that culture.  (However, I can see that this novel would lend itself particularly well to a teaching setting, from middle school up.)

I read this as the January selection for The Wolves, hosted by Eileen.

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13 Responses to Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers

  1. Richard says:

    I wound up enjoying and to a degree, empathizing with, many of the characters, Shannyn, although I’m not entirely sure why since I also noticed the predictable and stock-like elements of the characterizations that you mentioned. It also took me a long time to warm up to the protagonist, but I eventually did. On the other hand, I didn’t respect the work enough to want to read all of the introductory material afterward. Anyway, thanks for reading along with us on this one–I hope your next Wolves read will prove more enjoyable for you and that you won’t hold this one against us too much!

    • It’s hard for me to articulate how I felt about this book, because I did like it, but I thought it could have been more. And I don’t really think that’s fair, to judge it on what it is not. I liked Sara and was pleased to see her realize her dreams, but I knew she would from the start, so there wasn’t much at stake (as a reader). But I am looking forward to the next selection, and thanks (to you all) for being so welcoming!

  2. Frances says:

    The character Sara grew on me but every time I began to like the direction of the book, something wonky would happen like Sara stalking her professor or the grocery store purchase debacle that is never really fully concluded. What happened to her parents there exactly? Father a bad business man of course but that would have been an interesting facet to the story – Orthodox Jews functioning outside the Lower East Side. Just not enough here for me.

    Thanks so much for reading with us!

    • Agree about the Sara following her professor episode, what was that? The grocery store part was funny to me, how her parents went from playfully bickering to angrily bickering. Thanks for having me along!

  3. Pingback: Bread Givers – Book Review – caribousmom

  4. EL Fay says:

    That seems to be the common complaint regarding Bread Givers: that the characters are over the top and stock-like. Although I did like the book, I do agree with that assessment. But I also think that’s been the secret to at least some of its staying power. The characters and situations are so generalized that a lot of people can easily relate. The story of Americanization and culture clash is pretty universal.

    • That’s a really good point about the universality of it being key to its continuing relevance today. I think that’s a big part of why I think it would be a good work to be taught in schools (which is a great thing!), because it can be understood by everyone and everyone would have something to bring to a discussion of its themes.

  5. Emily says:

    I agree that the characters never really lived & breathed for me, although by the end I was attached to Sara. Also, as you say, “never doubted she would escape her father and find her place in the world” – which is interesting, since in the end, while she does find her place in the world, it’s arguable whether she escapes her father. I was actually kind of impressed by the turn the last few pages took, in that they were less predictable than I was expecting. All in all, there was enough of interest here to make me glad I read it, but it’s not going to be my next favorite or anything. 🙂

    • You’re right, I should have said “escape her father’s control/influence,” since she ends up taking care of him, but out of a genuine desire to help him, rather than just being obligated to do so. I’m glad I read it too!

  6. Violet says:

    I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like a standard immigrant, clash of cultures, story. It may be somewhat dated, but I think we could easily extrapolate the story to cultures other than our own, and find that, sadly, not a lot has changed for some women.

  7. tuulenhaiven says:

    Yes to the stock characters, and not really identifying with Sara. Like Emily, I was rather impressed with the ending though, since it didn’t have the expected happy ending. The ending was the only thing that felt really real to me. Thanks for joining The Wolves in reading this month!

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