The Jewish Female Immigrant: Assimilation and Gender Roles in Bread Givers

Picture of the paperback cover of Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska

Picture of the paperback cover of Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska

The novel Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska examines with fiction the roles and experiences of the Jewish immigrant, particularly that of the female in America roughly right after the years of WWI, before WWII in New York City. The story focuses on the familial relationships between Reb Smolinsky, a rabbi and scholar of the Torah and his wife and their daughters, in particular that of their youngest, Sara. The novel, through antidotal episodes, tracks the journey of a young Jewish immigrant female (and her family) who comes of age in a country with decidedly different ideals than those that are revered in the Smolinsky household and by much of the Jewish community that lives within the tenement housing neighborhoods of early 1900s New York City. For Sara, the need to assimilate to American standards is so great that she risks breaking the bonds with her family and her community. The family, by and large, are Russian Jewish refugees in America, but while Sara’s parents and older sisters try to stay true to the old world, Sara seeks to fit in with the culture of the new world.

Throughout the novel Sara struggles with her need for assimilation. In many ways reaching a level of autonomy from the family is the definition of assimilation in America but at the same time Sara wishes there was a way to balance that effort to belong to the new world without having to completely give up her ties to the old (205-208). Gay Wilentz, in the essay entitled “Cultural Mediation and the Immigrant’s Daughter: Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers,” makes strong arguments that I agree with about how and why the Jewish community looks upon assimilation with mixed emotions and particularly how and why the Jewish immigrant female had a unique experience due to her gender. According to Wilentz, many Jewish writers have noted that “the price of Americanization was high — the loss of Jewish traditions and the rich, cultural life of the shtetl” (34). Bread Givers shows us the consequences of Americanization when Sara says, “I had made my choice. And now I had to pay the price. So this is what it cost, daring to follow the urge in me. No father. No lover. No family. No friend” (208).

When Reb finds out that Sara has refused Max Goldstein in marriage he comes to Sara’s apartment to confront her (204). He calls her lawless, a dried up old maid, and then effortlessly ties it to his views of America and what he thinks of his daughter having a mind of her own, “You think millions of educated old maids like you could change the world one inch? Woe to America where women are let free like men […] all the evils of the world come from them” (205). Furthermore, Wilentz contends that “for the Jewish woman immigrant, this conflict of culture took on an added dimension: not only was she forced to deal with the prejudices of the dominant culture but also with the patriarchal traditions of the Ashkenazi Jewish community” (34). American women were gaining the right to vote during this era but that is not to say that it was a time where it was expected that women work outside of the home. Indeed, American business was dominated by men. For Jewish families of a rabbi from the old world, “the burden of financial responsibility fell on the women and children” ( Wilentz 35). For the wife and daughters of rabbi Smolinsky, earning the meager household wages while he studied the Torah, assimilation was not just difficult it was basically impossible. Furthermore there is the contention “that where the ability to make money constitutes success, the women still remained subservient” (Wilentz 35).

Anzia Yezierska 1885-1970

Anzia Yezierska 1885-1970

The idea of bread-winning women remaining subserviant is particularly evident in the character of one of the sisters, Bessie. She is the oldest daughter and had come of age in the old world. She is unable to find a place in the new world and so she stays well within the confines of her community. Overall, America is to her a place that offers things she doesn’t feel capable of having. Most importantly, she does not even dare to think about what it would be like to be autonomous or make her own decisions. For Bessie it is not possible to be insubordinate against her father (46-51). This is evident when she breaks it off with her boyfriend, Berel Bernstein, who she loves, in order to please her father. Berel says to her, “It’s you who are to blame […] so long as he gets enough to eat he’ll […] bluff away his days with his learning and his prayers.” (50). Bessie answers him, saying, “I couldn’t marry a man that don’t respect my father” (51). The familial situation is complicated further by the fact that Bessie is the biggest wage earner in the household (45) and the idea of her leaving home to get married truly disturbs Reb on an economic level, but it is not just that; consequently, it becomes clear what things are also about when Reb asks, “Has a father no rights in America?” (45). These words show that Reb is aware of the generational and ethnographical environment in which he is surrounded. Perhaps these words show him to be a bit of a fish out of water in many respects then, and afraid that things are changing beyond his control outside the home. In the same way that Sara reaches for the new world, Bessie consciously turns her back on it — but Reb, irrevocably ties himself to the old world by denying his loyal child the chance for a happy marriage.

When looking again at Reb’s reaction to Sara denying Max Goldstein in marriage, the way he treats the Bessie situation is particularly disturbing and even chilling, especially given Reb’s beliefs when it comes to women’s importance being based on the confines of a marriage. “A woman’s highest happiness is to be a man’s wife, the mother of a man’s children. You’re not a person at all,” (206) he says to Sara when he confronts her on turning down the marriage proposal. At this time in Sara’s life she is working her way through college, living in a grimy, cold and cheerless basement room because it is all that she can afford. She is going her way in the world completely alone, separated from her family because she is driven to assimilate and separated from the rest of the society she lives in because she is a female racial minority and society does not want to allow her to assimilate. According to Wilentz, Yezierska “exposes us to the double bind of the Jewish woman [that] left her rootless and thrust her into a hard and prejudiced world which kept her always a stranger” (34).

All in all Sara’s drive for success in terms of assimilation gives her the ability in many ways to stand up to her father. By the time Sara, at seventeen, finally leaves the Smolinsky household for good and gives her father a good what for before she does, he has essentially ruined the lives of the rest of his children and squandered four-hundred dollars the family could not afford on a bad business deal for a grocery store. When he starts to get mad at Sara for crediting a woman on two pennies Sara rebels saying, “I’ve got to live my own life. It’s enough that Mother and the others lived for you” (137). Sara then goes on her famous struggles to earn a living while going to college, even though in both the classroom and at work she is the other and is despised for it.

Despite all the trials and tribulations of being hated and alone, Sara does manage to reach her goals and she becomes a teacher and even meets a Jewish man to marry. However, as, Wilentz puts it, “the novel ends as a Jewish lament rather than in a happy-ever-after” (35). We know why this is: Assimilation comes at a cost, one that many see as being too high a price to pay to belong. Whatever Sara has gained in becoming independent, she has lost in sacrificing the relationship with her father. As Wilentz contends:

the dilemma of the Jewish immigrant woman whose conflict between living her life as an Americanerin and retaining the strength and sustenance she receives as part of the Jewish community is further exacerbated by her desires for independence as a woman (33-34).

But one of the things about Sara’s not quite so perfect ending is that we’re left with the feeling that she is figuring it out as she goes along. She celebrates the victory of graduating college with a ride on a train, eating a good meal, buying a nice corporate suit and renting an “airy room, the kind of room [she] had always wanted” ( 237-240). What happiness means to her and what part she will play in creating the happiness in her own life is still uncertain. What makes me consistently happy with the novel though is not the success of Sara’s assimilation but Sara’s growth from girlhood to womanhood. With the return of Reb into her life, a new beau and new a job I am left with the feeling at the end of the novel that Sara has more of a row to hoe in life. And frankly, that makes me happy for her; every time she is tested she has the chance to become more autonomous. In Sara’s own words, “How grand it felt to lean back in my chair, a person among people, and order anything I wanted from the menu” (237).

Works cited

Wilentz, Gay. “Cultural Mediation and Immigrants Daughter: Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers.” MELUS. 17.3 (Fall 1991-92):33-41).

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