Friday, December 12, 2008

Starving for Bread and Knowledge in Yezierska's Bread Givers

Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers depicts the life of a Jewish immigrant family from Poland. The plot proliferates with themes and symbols seminal to the American immigrants in the beginning of the 20th century. As the Smolinsky family struggles with hunger, questions of morality and gender discrimination come to the surface. Sara Smolinsky, the youngest daughter, epitomizes the social changes in the immigrant’s life: she emerges from a man-driven Old World to make herself “a person” and get education in the New World (159). The hungry for bread immigrant starves for knowledge as a pathway to individuality and independence.

Reb Smolinsky, the father, is a religious man who prays all day long and chooses not to work, but who believes that a woman is nothing without a man. His vision for getting bread at the table is solely rooted in the management of his four daughters: they give his wages to the family, they work for his well-being, and they are supposed to marry to rich gentlemen who will support the whole Smolinsky family. Thus, Reb Smolinsky marries three out of his four daughters to seemingly rich men; however, his poor matchmaking skills render his daughters unhappy and put them in marriages with men who either lied about their prosperity, spend all the money on themselves, or have numerous children from a previous marriage. The principles of the Smolinsky family call for happiness in prosperity and rich life and leave behind love and education.

The youngest daughter of Reb Smolinsky, Sara, disrupts the idea of her father by running away from the family. One day she gets tired of her father’s preaching, his gullibility as a businessman and his plans to marry her off to a rich man. Sara begins a life of her own, delving into a world of poverty but cherishing aspirations for education. Sara’s life in New York is marked by physical and epistemological hunger. She works at daytime in a laundry as an ironer and goes to school in the evenings. Her dream is to become a teacher. Despite the connection between the spirituality of father and daughter, Sara’s move clashes with Reb Smolinsky’s idea of a woman. He tries to marry her off to “a golden young man” who Sara initially likes because of his achieved independence but refuses to marry (207). The dispute between father and daughter ends their relationship for a while, illuminating the difference between the two worlds that Reb and Sara belong to: “I saw there was no use talking. He could never understand. He was the Old World. I was the New” (207).

Two worlds collide, and the new one attracts Sara more because of the possibilities it gives to a young woman: “It’s a new life now. In America, women don’t need men to boss them” (137). Sara’s hunger for knowledge overcomes her hunger for food. All her sisters were afraid to tear away from the old world because of the hunger that they and their family will face with their move. Sara does not fear hunger; she is on a quest to make herself a new person, one who deserves respect as much as men do . She enunciates a social change in the immigrant’s life: women can be equal to men in the new world.

In fact, all the men in the Smolinsky’s world are supposed to be “bread givers” but they fail as such. Reb Smolinsky does not even know how to handle his own money; he constantly loses whatever he has in a foolish way and lives on the wages of his daughters. Moe Mirsky, who marries the most beautiful of the Smolinsky daughters – Mashah – as a diamond dealer, is actually a simple clerk who cannot keep a job and starves his family while wearing expensive suits and eating at fancy restaurants. Abe Schmukler, the cloaks-and-suits dealer who marries Fania, appears to be a gambler who does not care about his wife’s emotions and while he provides for her good appearance, it is only because that makes him look good in the eyes of the others. Zalmon, the fish-peddler chosen by the father as Bessie’s husband, does not care about the happiness of his wife and is pleased as long as he has someone to take care of his house and six kids.

Sara Smolinsky sees that it is time to leave the world of men as bread givers; apparently, the question from the Torah “What is a woman without a man?” has a different answer in the new world (205). A woman could be a better bread giver than all the men in the Smolinsky family.

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