Anzia Yezierska came to America with her Polish immigrant family in the 1890s. She never forgot the hunger and hardship of their early days in the Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her struggle to escape from the slums to an independent American life is fictionalized as Sara Smolinksy's journey in Bread Givers (1925), originally subtitled, "A Struggle Between a Father of the Old World and a Daughter of the New." It is the most closely autobiographical of Yezierska's early works.
Yezierska was at the height of her fame in the 1920s when she wrote Bread Givers. She had already been exploring similar themes of surviving in a foreign culture in her short stories and novels. Her first collection of short stories, Hungry Hearts (1920), had been made into a successful film, and she had been accepted by Hollywood as "the Sweatshop Cinderella," a rags-to-riches stereotype she came to resent as oversimplified. Returning to her roots in New York, she continued to pour out fiction about the hope, guilt, anger, and determination of the immigrant in America. All but forgotten after the Great Depression, she enjoyed a mild revival with her autobiographical novel about being a writer, Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950). Not until interest in ethnic literature rose in the 1960s, however, was she rediscovered. Bread Givers, which had been out of print, was republished by Persea Books in 1975, and it has remained the author's most popular work. Yezierska's fame seems assured the second time around. Her primary topic, the clash of conflicting values in a multicultural world, is a timely theme in contemporary society.
Anzia Yezierska was born in Plotsk (or Plinsk), a small town in Russian Poland, around 1883 to a family with ten children. Her father was a Talmudic scholar. The family immigrated to New York around 1893, where the eldest son had moved first, changing his name to Max Mayer. The rest of the family changed their last name to his, with Anzia becoming Harriet (Hattie) Mayer, only later changing her name back. They lived in the Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Yezierska left her family to live on her own in 1900, going to night school to learn English and working in sweatshops during the day. She lived at the Clara de Hirsch Home for Working Girls, a settlement house that helped immigrant girls train as servants. She was given a scholarship to study domestic science at Columbia University's Teachers College and became a teacher of cooking in the New York public schools from 1905 to 1913.
To compensate for the intellectual education she had not gotten, she read and attended lectures, living in Rand School, a Socialist gathering place. There she met feminist activists and writers. In 1911 she married Jacob Gordon, an attorney, but quickly got an annulment and then married Arnold Levitas, the father of her only child, Louise, born in 1912. Finding marriage too confining, she tried to be a working single mother but finally let Levitas have custody of Louise so that she could devote herself to writing. Her first story, "The Free Vacation House," was published in 1915 in Forum.
In 1917 Yezierska met the philosopher John Dewey, who enrolled her in his Columbia class on social philosophy. He inspired her to write and helped her publish. Dewey also wrote love poems to her but broke off the relationship. Yezierska included older Dewey figures throughout her work, representing the wise American who accepts the immigrant woman for her gifts. In 1918 Dewey got her a job as a translator for a research project studying the Polish community of Philadelphia. Her story "The Fat of the Land" won the O. Henry Award as best short story of 1919. A collection of stories was published as Hungry Hearts in 1920. Hollywood made a film of it, and Samuel Goldwyn signed Yezierska to write scripts. Uncomfortable with Hollywood, however, she returned to New York.
This was Yezierska's period of fame as "the Sweatshop Cinderella" who worked her way out of the slums. She wrote realistic scenes of ghetto life in an anglicized Yiddish idiom. Salome of the Tenements, a novel that was also made into a film, and Children of Loneliness, a collection of short stories, followed in 1923. Bread Givers (1925), with the original subtitle "A Struggle Between a Father of the Old World and a Daughter of the New," is her most famous work. Arrogant Beggar (1927) was her last novel of this prolific time. From 1929 to 1930 she was a writer in residence at the University of Wisconsin. During the Depression years, when there was less interest in her work, she became poor again, working for the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration. All I Could Never Be (1932) continued themes of her relationship with John Dewey.
Her work was criticized as being repetitive and emotional, but after an eighteen-year period of oblivion, Yezierska made a brief comeback with her fictionalized autobiography Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950), with an introduction by W. H. Auden. In the 1950s she reviewed books for the New York Times, and in the 1960s she was rediscovered by university students. Seen as a pioneer of Jewish literature, she was given grants by the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1962 and 1965. In her last years of declining health, she was tended by her daughter; she died in 1970 in a nursing home in California. Bread Givers was republished in 1975. The Open Cage: An Anzia Yezierska Collection (1979) includes her best and previously unpublished stories. How I Found America: Collected Stories of Anzia Yezierska (2003) includes all of the author's short fiction. With the public catching up to her timely feminist and immigrant themes, Yezierska's fame has been re-established.
Book I: Hester Street
CHAPTER 1: HESTER STREET
In the 1890s in the Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on Hester Street, the immigrant Smolinsky family gathers for dinner. While ten-year-old Sara, the youngest daughter of Rabbi Smolinsky, is peeling potatoes for dinner, the other sisters tell of how they could not find work. The eldest sister, Bessie, the main breadwinner of the family, is discouraged because the family needs her wages or they will be thrown out for not paying the rent. Mashah, the pretty and vain sister, comes in having bought roses for her hat instead of having found work. Fania, another sister, says there are lines of girls for each job. The mother comes in saying the shopkeepers will give her no more credit.
Sara resents poverty and hates hunting through ash cans for wood and coal. The house is dirty and packed with too many people and things. The front room is reserved for the father and his holy books, which he studies all day while the other members of the family support him, as is the old tradition for a scholar in the family. The father reminds the women that according to Jewish law, they must serve him so that they will find a place in heaven, for a woman cannot get there by herself. The women are starving but give all the best food to the father. Sara's mother tells her husband that he must move out of the front room into the kitchen so that they can rent the room. When the angry rent collector does not get the rent, she throws the father's holy book to the floor, telling him to get a job. He slaps her, and a policeman takes him to jail. Muhmenkeh, the herring seller, gives little Sara some herring to start her own business, and she begins to make money, hollering along with the pushcart sellers on the street.
CHAPTER 2: THE SPEAKING MOUTH OF THE BLOCK
The neighbors, revering the rabbi as a holy man, pool their money to bail Smolinsky out and pay a lawyer. The lawyer tells the court that the rabbi is the community's religious man and displays the landlady's footprint on his Bible. The judge lets him go, and he is the hero of the neighborhood as the speaking mouth of the block who stood up to a rent collector.
With Reb Smolinsky's fame, it proves easy to rent the front room, and the family gets credit to buy things to fix up the house. The three older girls get work, Sara sells herrings, and there is some ease for the family. The mother stops yelling and cursing and tells her girls stories of the Old World, when they had plenty and she was as beautiful as Mashah. Her father was wealthy and wanted a scholar for a son-in-law, and that was how she married the high-minded Reb. When they became poor and the pogroms threatened them, they sold everything to get to America, where Reb thought everything would be free.
CHAPTER 3: THE BURDEN BEARER
The mother worries about marrying off Bessie, who is getting old. She is the one who bears the burden of the house, bringing in the most wages and giving them all to her father. The boarders, whom the family hoped would want to marry the girls, have eyes only for Mashah, who spends all her money on herself. Fania, the third daughter, is the first to get a young man, but he is poor and goes to night school. He writes poetry to Fania.
- Bread Givers was not made into a film, but Yezierska's first collection of short stories, Hungry Hearts, with similar ghetto vignettes, was made into an eighty-minute silent film in 1922 by Samuel Goldwyn Pictures, directed by E. Mason Hopper. Still photos from this film are used as illustrations in the 2003 Persea edition of Bread Givers. The film has been restored by the National Center for Jewish Film, Samuel Goldwyn Pictures, and the British Film Institute. It is available for institutional rental from the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University.
One night Bessie comes home with a new tablecloth and some odds and ends to decorate the house. She makes everyone help scrub the house and tidy it up. The next evening, Bessie waits until everyone is gone and then puts on Mashah's pink dress. She is fat, and Sara has to help her get into it, but the seam rips out. She entertains a young man from work, Berel Bernstein, who wants to marry Bessie because she is a strong worker, and he wants to open his own clothing shop.
Berel offers to marry Bessie without a dowry, but Reb says that he cannot afford to let her go because of all the money she brings in. He insists that Berel pay him for marrying his daughter by setting him up in business. Berel refuses, and Bessie gives him up. Six weeks later, Berel is engaged to another woman, and Sara, enraged, curses him at his engagement party.
CHAPTER 4: THE "EMPTY-HEAD"
Mashah, whom Reb calls the "Empty-head," falls in love with Jacob Novak, a refined piano player and the son of a wealthy department store owner. He lives on the corner, and the music he plays attracts Mashah. Mashah woos him by cooking and creating beauty around him when he comes over to the house.
When Jacob's father meets the ghetto girl his son is in love with, he puts pressure on his son to dump her. She hears of his concert, to which she is not invited. In despair, Mashah sends Jacob a letter of reproach. The lovers almost make up, but Reb finds them and pushes Jacob out of his house. Jacob keeps trying to see Mashah, but she is too weak to go against her father's will. Reb continues to browbeat Mashah, and Sara begins to hate him.
CHAPTER 5: MORRIS LIPKIN WRITES POETRY
Reb intercepts a love letter to Fania from Morris Lipkin, who says he has no money to give her, only his poems called "Poems of Poverty." Fania and Reb argue, and she insists that she will marry someone she loves. Sara joins in the fight, debating with her father, and he calls her "Blood-and-iron" for daring to question him.
When Mrs. Smolinsky accuses Reb of driving suitors away, he says he will find suitors for his daughters by going to Zaretsky, the matchmaker. Morris comes to the house to ask for Fania's hand, and Reb ignores him until he leaves. Reb finds another suitor for Fania, Moe Mirsky, a supposed diamond salesman. Moe takes a fancy to Mashah, and Reb is ready to marry her off to him, despite the fact that he knows nothing about the man. Fania fights with her father over Morris, but he brings her a suitor from the matchmaker as well, Abe Schmukler, a clothing manufacturer from Los Angeles. Moe gives Mashah diamonds, and Abe gives Fania clothes and takes her to the theater. Both girls give in to get out of poverty and out of their father's house. There is a double wedding, and Bessie is jealous.
A month after the wedding Mashah comes home with the news that she is starving and needs food. She admits Moe is not a diamond salesman; he borrowed the diamonds from the jewelry store where he worked and was fired for it. Now he is a shoe clerk. The father berates the daughter for her misfortune. Sara finds Morris Lipkin's love letters to Fania under the mattress, reads them, and falls in love with him. She follows Morris around, finally confessing her love. He calls her a silly kid, and she tears up his letters and her hope of finding love.
CHAPTER 6: THE BURDEN BEARER CHANGES HER BURDEN
Though Sara is thin, she is known as a good worker because of her passion. She works in a paper-box factory and gets paid more than larger women. She gives it all to her father, who will not let her have any for herself. He gives part of the money to charity but will not buy his daughter a coat. Reb becomes a matchmaker, thinking he is good at it. The wife of Zalmon, the fishmonger, dies, and Zalmon wants a replacement to care for his six children. Reb decides that this is Bessie's chance, though Zalmon is fifty-six.
Mrs. Smolinsky defends Bessie, but Reb has his own plan to get money from Zalmon to start his own business. They shake hands on the matter and then tell Bessie. She hates Zalmon and the smell of fish and has a fit of crying. Zalmon comes courting, having bathed and shaved and bringing Bessie presents of his former wife's fur coat and gold watch.
Bessie is wretched until Zalmon brings his youngest, five-year-old son, who has hurt his knee. Bessie takes care of him, and the boy, Benny, says he is waiting for his mother to come home, but she does not. Bessie cries and hugs him. Zalmon begins to use the child to bargain for himself, but Bessie feels trapped. When Bennie falls sick, one of the children finds Bessie, who cares for him, and he calls her "mother." She gives in to Zalmon.
CHAPTER 7: FATHER BECOMES A BUSINESS MAN IN AMERICA
Mrs. Smolinsky tells her husband to put the four hundred dollars from Zalmon in the bank, but he says the cash must be ready for a bargain. He sees an ad for a grocery in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and rushes off to look at it. Reb sends word for his wife and Sara to come to Elizabeth to see the store. When they arrive, there are crowds buying food, and the store looks successful. Reb has already bought it. They begin to dream about being rich but then discover they were swindled. The store is not really stocked, and the people came in because the man had reduced the prices below cost. Reb is shocked, because he had believed what the man told him. His wife is frantic, but Reb remains calm, trusting in God.
CHAPTER 8: THE HARD HEART
The family prays for a miracle. They sleep in the store and buy supplies on credit, but they can never keep enough stock to pull in customers. Sara is bored and longs for the fast life of the city, where she earned money. Her mother is happy for the green grass and blue sky at least. When Sara sees the incompetence of her parents, how her father drives away customers with preaching and insults, she loses her temper. She grabs her things and explains that she is leaving and not coming home again.
CHAPTER 9: BREAD GIVERS
Sara gets off the train in New York and goes to stay with Bessie. She is shocked to see Bessie standing next to her husband peddling fish to crowds of desperate ghetto women. In Zalmon's house, five boys sleep on a mattress on the floor, and the fat daughter takes up a sofa. Bessie congratulates Sara for getting free and says that she would run, too, except for Benny. Bessie and Sara sleep together on the floor; in the morning, Zalmon sends Sara away, claiming she is a bad example to his daughter.
Next Sara tries her sister Mashah's home but runs into Moe Mirsky in the street. Wearing a new suit, he looks like a gentleman. In her doorway, Mashah is arguing with the milkman over the unpaid bill. Sara cannot believe that Moe has spent their money on himself instead of food for the children. Sara sees the attempts Mashah has made to create beauty in her home, but she herself looks old and shabby and hopeless. When the gas goes out, Sara puts a quarter in the gas meter and helps the children to bed. They wait at dinner for the bread giver (wage earner), Moe, but he comes in after they have finished, saying he ate in a restaurant. He abuses his wife for being shabby and overworked. Sara says that she would kill him if he were her husband and walks out.
Book II: Between Two Worlds
CHAPTER 10: I SHUT THE DOOR
Sara remembers a story in the newspaper about a girl who went to night school and then college and became a teacher. She looks for a room to rent, but many landlords do not want working girls. She finds a cheap, dirty room and exults because closing the door and being alone is the first step in becoming a person.
She finds a job ironing in a laundry. In night school she studies English and arithmetic in a class of fifty students. She begins a demanding schedule of ten hours of work, two hours of class, and two hours of homework every day. The neighborhood is loud with noise as she tries to study, but she blocks it out with discipline.
CHAPTER 11: A PIECE OF MEAT
Sara does not have enough money for food and is always hungry. Thinking of food when she is ironing, she burns a shirt, and the boss takes three dollars out of her salary. In the cafeteria, she buys some stew, asking for a lot of meat, and is angry when the worker gives her mostly potatoes. The man behind her is given stew with big chunks of meat. Furious, she says she wants a dish like the man's. She is told they always give the men more.
She goes home, eats bread, and tries to study, but it is so cold that she cannot. Suddenly, there is a knock on the door, and it is her mother, who has walked all the way from Elizabeth with a feather bed. She has brought a jar of pickled herring, and Sara feels pain at her mother's love because she cannot give her mother the one thing she wants: a visit from her daughter. Sara says that she will visit after she gets her degree. She cannot waste her youth; she must become a person. Her mother holds her for a moment, disappointed, and leaves.
CHAPTER 12: MY SISTERS AND I
Sara tires of being alone. Suddenly, her sisters Fania and Bessie burst through the door. Fania has come from California in silks and diamonds, while Bessie is in her rags. Fania tells Sara to come to California with her, but Sara says she has to finish college. She notices that Fania has shadows under her eyes. Fania confesses her loneliness, as her husband is gone all the time, gambling, and she has no friends. She has to lie to him to get money. She can only think of Morris Lipkin.
Bessie talks about her cruel stepchildren, whom she cannot please. Sara thinks that Bessie looks older than their mother. Sara decides that she does not want to marry because she has a goal to her life. She refuses to stop studying and go home with them. Fania compares her to their father with his Torah.
CHAPTER 13: OUTCAST
In the laundry Sara feels outcast from the other girls because they gossip about their boyfriends and tell about their love lives. …