The English Lesson

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The English Lesson

Book excerpt

By: Anzia Yezierska

Date: 1925

Source: Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers: A Struggle between a Father of the Old World and a Daughter of the New. New York: G. Braziller, 1975.

About the Author: Anzia Yezierska (1885?–1970) is the best known writer of fiction about the struggles of immigrant Jewish women in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Polish-born Yezierska arrived with her family in the United States in the 1890s.


A Polish immigrant with Russian roots, Anzia Yezierska came to America in the peak era of Jewish immigration. While immigrants have always struggled with the differences between the values of their home countries and their newly-adopted country, Yezierska was the first fiction writer to explore the special impact of immigration upon women.

When the Yeziersky family came to America in 1890, immigration officers gave them new easy-to-spell names. Yezierska, the youngest of nine children, became Hattie Mayer. The family moved to a dark, airless, tenement apartment that looked out at the blank wall of the next house. When Yezierska's teen-aged sisters went to work sewing shirtwaists in a sweatshop, Anzia learned the English language and American ways in public school. This bit of learning gave her the critical, rebellious eye that she cast on the lot of women in Jewish immigrant families. As Yezierska noted, her mother ended her long day at a terrible job by fighting for food from pushcarts while her father was a Hebrew scholar and dreamer who was always too much in the air to come down to such thoughts as bread and rent. This subject of the brutal life of Jewish immigrants would lead her to write many short stories and her best known work, Bread Givers, in 1925.

In the 1920s, Yezierska became a celebrity. Newspapers frequently retold the tale of how she had risen from New York's Lower East Side ghetto to literary stardom. With the advent of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Yezierska lost both her audience and her money. She continued to write, however, and received awards from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1965 in recognition of her distinction as a writer. Following Yezierska's death in 1970, she was discovered by feminists and social historians. Bread Givers has since become a standard text in history and women's studies courses.


Not one of the teachers around me had kept the glamour. They were just peddling their little bit of education for a living, the same as any pushcart peddler.

But no. There was one in this school who was what I had dreamed a teacher to be—the principal, Mr. Hugo Seelig. He had kept that living thing, that flame, that I used to worship as a child. And yet he had none of the aloof dignity of a superior. He was just plain human. When he entered a classroom sunlight filled the place.

How had he created that big spirit around him? What a long way I had to go yet before I could become so wholly absorbed in my work as he. The youngest, dirtiest child in the lowest grade he treated with the same courtesy and serious attention as he gave to the head of the department.

One of Mr. Seelig's special hobbies was English pronunciation, and since I was new to the work, he would come in sometimes to see how I was getting on. My children used to murder the language as I did when I was a child of Hester Street. And I wanted to give them that better speech that the teachers in college had tried to knock into me.

Sometimes my task seemed almost hopeless. There was Aby Zuker, the brightest eleven-year-old boy in my class of fifty. He had the neighbourhood habit of ending almost every sentence with "ain't it." For his special home work I had given him a sentence with the words "isn't it" to be written a hundred times.

The next morning eh brought it back and with a shining face declared, "I got it all right now, Teacher! Ain't' it?"

"Oh, Aby!" I cried. "And you want to be a lawyer! Don't you know the judges will laugh you out of court if you plead your case with 'ain't it'?

Poor Aby! His little fingers scratched his mop of red curls in puzzlement. From his drooping figure I turned, laughing, to the class.

"Now, children, let's see how perfectly we can pronounce the words we went over yesterday."

On the board, I wrote, s-i-n-g.

"Aby! Pronounce this word."

"Sing-gha," said Aby.

"Sing," I corrected.

"Sing-gha," came from Aby again.

"Rosy Stein! You can do better. Show our lawyer how to speak. Make a sentence with the word 'sing.'"

"The boids sing-gha."

"Rosy, say bird."

"Boid," repeated small Rosy with great distinctness. "Boid."

"Wrong still," I laughed. "Children, how do you pronounce this?" And I wrote hastily on the board, OIL.

"Earl," cried the class, triumphantly.

"You know how to make the right sounds for these words, but you put them in the opposite places." And I began to drill them in pronunciation. In the middle of the chorus, I heard a little chuckle. I turned to see Mr. Seelig himself, who had quietly entered the room and stood enjoying the performance. I returned his smile and went right on.

"You try it again, Rosy. The birds sing-gg."

"Sing," corrected Mr. Seelig, softly.

There it was. I was slipping back into the vernacular myself. In my embarrassment, I tried again and failed. He watched me as I blundered on. The next moment he was close beside me, the tips of his cool fingers on my throat. "Keep those muscles still until you have stopped. Now say it again," he commanded. And I turned pupil myself and pronounced the word correctly….


Foreign-born women, more than men, have experienced sharp tensions between the traditions of the Old World and American expectations of individualism and freedom. Most immigrant women, like their fathers and husbands, welcomed the challenges and opportunities of a dynamic American economy. Yet, like men, they showed some hesitance about accepting unchanged the personal freedoms to be had in the U.S. However, women were expected to be the guardians of cultural identity. To many, they were the heart of a culture. Immigrant women and their daughters were markers of the line dividing Americans from outsiders. As a result, they found their lives subjected to intensive scrutiny both from other immigrants and from Americans.

By 2000, about seven million Americans possessed Jewish heritage. Many of their ancestors immigrated during the peak of immigration from 1880 to 1914. Like Yezierska, most of them settled in New York City, making the area into one of the largest Jewish settlements in the world in the present-day. More Jews live in the United States than in any other country, including Israel. The American community of Jews is different from the Old World communities in that the tradition of separation of church and state in the United States meant that no national laws discriminating against Jews ever existed. Individuals did discriminate against Jews in housing and employment, however. Some of the best universities, including Yale and Princeton, had quotas that limited the number of Jews who would be admitted. Yet the constitutional protection against religious discrimination prompted Jews to see the United States as a land of freedom. In the 1930s, some of the most distinguished scientists in the world, including Albert Einstein, fled the Nazis for the United States. This migration of intellectuals helped make the United States into a world power.



Diner, Hasia. Jews in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Gabaccia, Donna. From the Other Side: Women, Gender, and Immigrant Life in the U.S., 1820–1990. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Henriksen, Louise Levitas. Anzia Yezierska: A Writer's Life. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

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The English Lesson

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