Bread Givers Summary

Anzia Yezierska

Bread Givers

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Bread Givers Summary

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Jewish-American writer Anzia Yezierska published Bread Givers in 1925. The three-volume novel is set in New York City’s Lower East Side and tells of a young girl growing up in a family of Jewish immigrants. Sara is ten years old and the daughter of parents from Poland in the Russian Empire. It is the 1920s with three main settings used throughout the novel. The first is Manhattan’s Hester Street where the Smolinsky family settles upon arriving in America. Reb, the patriarch, purchases a grocery store in Elizabeth, New Jersey providing another setting, and finally there is the college which Sara eventually attends.The school goes unnamed but is clearly removed from the settings of the Jewish immigrant experience.

Yezierska’s use of settings defines the mood and personality of Sara. Hester Street is made up of communities that, to some extent, attempt to recreate the European communities from which the immigrants came. Sara’s area is a safe haven, of sorts, as it breeds familiarity. Elizabeth, New Jersey, on the other hand, is a rural region, relatively speaking, where unlike in the city, agriculture is a significant part of the economy. There are immigrant farm workers who appear Americanized. This type of community makes Sarah and her mother long for the close-knit environment of the Lower East Side tenements. Sara becomes further removed from her culture when she departs for college. She has difficulty relating to others her age and does better with those older than she is.

At the onset, the family has come to America seeking a better life. Sara has three sisters: Bessie, Mashah, and Fania, none of whom are employed as the story begins. Bessie has just suffered through another unsuccessful day of looking for work. Sara is preparing dinner for the family,as Mashah returns home in a happy mood having purchased flowers to accessorize her hat. Fania’s anger is provoked when she discovers that her sister has spent ten cents frivolously, and she displays her frustration. This is not an atypical scene in the home of the Smolinsky family, where they are in a constant struggle to put food on the table. Reb is a highly religious man to the point of putting his religious activities above family time and dedication to holding a job. Sara’s three older sisters are relied upon to somehow raise enough money to pay the family’s expenses. Reb’s wife, Shenah, eventually convinces him to clear his religious texts from the extra room in which he uses them so that the family can take in a border to raise some extra money. This, along with the three girls each finding work, makes things a bit less difficult with respect to finances. Even Sara is able to help by rummaging for unburned pieces of coal in ash piles.Eventually, Sara rejects this type of work and begins selling herring on the street, then using that money to purchase coal for the family.

The attitude and work ethic that Sara develops allows her to eventually study for many years to become a teacher and leave her father’s home. She learns to persevere and ultimately achieves her objective. Reb, meanwhile, following tradition, arranges marriages for his three oldest daughters, none of which are based on love. The last of the three to be married is Bessie, whose husband is a fish seller with six children. In return for his daughter’s hand, Reb receives five hundred dollars, which he uses to purchase a store in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Unfortunately, Reb is the victim of a shady business deal and loses the money. By the time Sara returns from college, the business no longer exists.

Eventually, Sara becomes estranged from her father and goes to work in a laundry, attends school, and lives in a dreary room. She declines an offer of marriage from the wealthy friend of the husband of one of her sisters, knowing that she could never be happy with him. This drives a further wedge between Sara and Reb. At college, Sara earns the respect of her professors, while never fitting in socially with her peers. In time, she realizes that the difficult experiences she has endured in life have made her well qualified for success in college. By the time she graduates and returns to New York for a teaching position, her mother is dying.

Shortly after the death of her mother, Sara’s father remarries. Reb still refuses to work, and his new wife makes many financial demands upon his daughters. They refuse, and Reb becomes a gum seller as his health declines. At this point, the girls do a bit to help their father with the hope that he can find some semblance of peace in his life. Sara falls in love with Hugo Selig. Hugo asks Reb to help him learn Hebrew, which pleases Reb. Reb continues to be unhappy with his new wife and talks of divorce, adding that the Talmud would permit it in situations such as his. Sara asks her father to live with her, warning Hugo that Reb will dominate their lives. Hugo assures Sara that they will be all the more fulfilled from his presence in their lives.