But Yezierska achieves remarkable results by eschewing phonetic spellings and relying instead on unusual syntax to evoke the native language of her characters. As vicious a character as can be found in American Jewish literature, Mr. When he tries to engage in business, he fails miserably, conned by scheming Americans. She attends college, wins a speech contest, becomes a public-school teacher, and falls in love with a man who combines the best of Europe and America. Though her father has done nothing to help her, she even nobly takes him into her home when he has no one else to care for him; ultimately, though she believes in education and assimilation, she recognizes that the past cannot be shrugged off.
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Anzia Yezierska was a Jewish-American writer, most popular in the s, and best known for her texts on the struggles of immigrants in America. She achieved fame in the s for her efforts to accurately represent the Jewish ghettos of New York, and particularly the female immigrant experience, without resorting to caricature or condescension.
During her life and career, Yezierska displayed a masterful ability to reinvent herself when she deemed it necessary or useful — she was, in addition to her often troubled identification as wife and mother, a reluctant teacher, translator, successful author and screenwriter..
Yezierska has often been critiqued as an author who merely examines her own life through her fiction but although her life certainly informs her writing, it does not define its limitations.
Her work demonstrates a desire to interrogate the immigrant experience — and particularly the experience of immigrant women — more thoroughly than merely through the lens of her own life. Born around in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, in the Russian Empire, Yezierska immigrated with her family to New York when she was about nine years of age, where they settled in the Jewish slums of the Lower East Side in the s.
As an adult, Yezierska published five novels, five collections of short stories and innumerable articles. Her most famous works are the novels Bread Givers and Salome of the Tenements which both explore the difficulties of a young Jewish immigrant in New York during the early twentieth century. However, she was frustrated by her alienation from the Jewish ghetto which had provided her with inspiration, and also by what she considered to be the insincere nature of Hollywood.
She continued to write until shortly before her death in her eighties, though she found it harder to publish as interest in her work had waned. Interestingly, it would seem that contemporary reviews were quite mixed in their reception of Bread Givers. Schoen Anzia Yezierska Schoen notes that some Jewish audiences were even less enthusiastic, and seemed to miss the careful modulation of language, and indeed the fact that English is used to carefully suggest the Yiddish of the ghettoes without parodying the speakers.
Contemporary reviews focused on the language in the novel, though they do not mention the progression from broken English to flowing eloquence at the close of the novel as the central character progresses in both education and self-awareness. In the course of her writing, Yezierska drew heavily on her own life experiences. As suggested above, Yezierska drew heavily on her own life though she also drew upon the experiences of her sisters and friends when writing.
She eventually returns home to Hester Street as a teacher, only for her mother to die and leave Sara with a difficult decision to make: should she invite her father to live with her and her husband-to-be, or not.
If her father were to live with them, it would mean a return to the world Sara struggled to escape, as her father would expect her to follow the Jewish religious calendar and to keep to the strict kosher dietary restrictions. However, Sara cannot abandon her father to live with his domineering second wife in absolute poverty, and so the novel ends with a sense of unease, as Sara does not entirely escape her father, and his traditions, which problematises the process of her Americanisation and freedom.
For them, immigration indeed offers possibilities not available in the Old World. However, like Yezierka, Sara Smolinsky rejects such a trajectory and instead fights to create a different existence.
Throughout the majority of Bread Givers Sara Smolinsky lives in terrible conditions and struggles to find a space in which she can live her life as she wishes. It was now time for dinner. I was throwing the rags and things from the table to the window, on the bed, over the chairs, or any place where there was room for them.
So much junk we had in our house that everyone put everything on the table. It was either to eat on the floor or for me the job of cleaning off the junk pile three times a day. The parlour became a sleeping room at night. His wife and daughters are forbidden from interfering with his studies, and when the landlady dares to throw a book on the floor when demanding the overdue rent, Reb Smolinsky demands justice for this indignity in court.
His victory over the Gentile landlady becomes both a signal of his importance, as well as the respect that he expects to be given to his scholarship and texts. Outside, there is both enough space to gather large groups together but also a sense of freedom which cannot be accessed within the dark and cramped tenement buildings.
In the contemporary community of Jewish immigrants, respectable unmarried women did not leave the parental home to live alone — and so Sara finds it difficult to find a room to rent. In her new home she is free to leave books out, have papers strewn about and to study as long into the night as she would like, without having to move items for others or to compromise her studies for the demands of others. The room, while far from ideal with neighbours above who throw their waste out the windows without concern for what or whom it may fall upon, affords Sara the privacy she longs for, though not the aesthetic pleasure of cleanliness or tidiness.
Her joy over the door, with which she can shut the rest of the world out, is enough to render the room acceptable and comfortable to her.
I loved the bright dishes from which I ate. I loved the shining pots and pans in which I cooked my food. I loved the broom with which I swept the floor, the scrubbing brush, the scrubbing rag, the dust cloth. Sara enjoys the practicalities of living alone — cleaning, cooking, and eating — as much as she enjoys the right to occupy the space alone.
However, even though Sara is pleased with her new home, this sense of optimism does not last until the end of the novel as she foresees a future in which she shares her precious privacy with her domineering father, and most likely also with the school principal and fellow Russian Jewish immigrant, Hugo Seelig. The public street often allows for more independence and privacy than the over-crowded tenement rooms. When Reb Smolinsky successfully defies the landlord, the neighbours all gather on the street to discuss the event and to re-tell the tale to one another.
The street also provides couples the space — both physically and psychologically — to court and to meet without parental interference. When Sara decides that she will become a teacher and therefore independent of her family and their expectations, she spends the night walking the streets in a joyful daze:.
All night long I walked the streets, drunk with my dreams. Was it already morning? The silence woke up from the block.
There began the rumbling of milk wagons, the clatter of bottles and cans, and the hum of opening stores, peddlers filling their pushcarts with fruit and loaves of bread. Sara finds space in the streets to dream and to plan her future; they are a place of hope and potential for her. In the public street, Sara has discovered an environment that allows her to explore her potential to be something other than merely another factory worker or domestic drudge like her neighbours and sisters.
This is her first attempt to achieve independence and it occurs on the public street. She associates independence with authenticity and individuality and therefore strives to become independent of her family and of her cultural heritage, a process of Americanisation and assimilation as much as one of self-creation. Towards the end of the novel, the street is where Hugo Seelig first begins to court Sara by walking her home and where an averted accident brings them together:.
We fell into step and for many blocks not a word passed between us. Something in what had happened had drawn us suddenly together. We were too filled for small talk the rest of the way, and before we knew it had reached Thirtieth Street and stood before my house. This sense of space and possibility contrasts sharply with the descriptions of the cluttered and oppressive tenement rooms which are usually full of people, clothes, books and rubbish.
Interestingly, the streets for Sara provide a free space, unhindered by issues such as class or gender — she is not harassed or bothered whilst outside at any point in the novel, only when she is in enclosed spaces: the family flat, the factory washrooms or in classrooms. Sara experiences the most freedom and peace during the novel when she is outside and walking the city streets. Indoor public spaces may sometime cause her concern or frustration, but when outside, she is at her freest and most optimistic.
Sara is permitted by society to further her own education and become a teacher to support herself because of her ethnicity, and most importantly because of her social class. As a poor Russian Jew Sara is expected to marry or to remain single and work to support her parents. She is also permitted to continue to work to support her family if her husband is a rabbi and therefore committed to spiritual learning, as her own father is.
If she could sign her name in Russian, do a little figuring, and write a letter in Yiddish to the parents of her betrothed, she was wohl gelerhrent — well educated. Antin qtd. Old maids — all of them. Another reason is that the independence that she shows when deciding to become a teacher is a trait that was considered unbecoming in a Jewish girl, and whose creation was blamed upon American culture Howe However, his admiration for her independence wanes when she is unwilling to stay out all night with him, or to marry him and move to Los Angeles.
Sara, although initially flattered and intrigued by Goldstein, eventually dismisses him as merely an untrustworthy suitor.
She realises that his obsession with business extends to his attempts to win a wife, and is disgusted by his arrogance and lack of respect for learning or intellectualism. Although she is eager to make an emotional connection with Goldstein, Sara understands that she is merely another business venture for him, and that by marrying him she would not be achieving her goals of carving out a niche for herself in America but simply moving from one form of drudgery to another.
If Sara symbolises the possibilities that America holds, and her father the limitations of European traditions and heritage, then Hugo Seelig disrupts this binary positioning of Old World versus New. This ostracises her from the community even further than her teaching, or unmarried status does. Hugo Seelig does not seem to suffer from the same problem even though he too is an immigrant Jew, which suggests that it may be a gender specific issue.
Hugo asks Reb Smolinsky to teach him Hebrew, and declares to Sara that their home will be richer with her father living in it. My home! Must I give it up to him? But with him there, it would not be a home for me. I suddenly realized that I had come back to where I had started twenty years ago when I began my fight for freedom. But in my rebellious youth, I thought I could escape by running away.
And now I realized that the shadow of the burden was always following me, and here I stopped face to face with it again. She frees herself of both it and her father when she moves out and becomes as independent as it is possible for her to be At the end of the novel, Sara feels obligated to offer her father a home with her, even though she knows that he will make her life more difficult.
Carol B. However, it is her incisive utilisation of space and the difficulties in belonging that are most compelling. Anzia Yezierska first came to notice a century ago, before fading from memory and dying in obscurity. Yezierska died in near-obscurity in , forgotten by the public and penniless. Now, nearly a century after her first works were published, her writings are still relevant as we try to negotiate a society with deep inequalities and increasing levels of poverty.
Belluscio, Steven J. Columbia: U of Missouri P, Boyle, Elizabeth. Graham Thompson. Esteve, Mary. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, Henriksen, Louise Levitas. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, Konzett, Delia Caparoso.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, Kramer, Michael P. Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature.
Yezierska emerged from it, too. She wrote largely autobiographical fiction, which helps give this novel its sense of authenticity. Bread Givers trains its lens over the beehive of the Lower East Side. The characters speak in sinuous Yiddish-English.
Bread Givers / Edition 3
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Anzia Yezierska’s “Bread Givers:” A Lens on the Beehive of the Lower East Side