Values in “Bread Givers” by Anzia Yezierska
The aim of this essay is to detail the predicaments faced by Sara Smolinsky in Anzia Yezierska’s novel, Bread Givers, largely due to conflicts between old world values represented by her country of origin in Eastern Europe, and early 20th century, modern American values.
Using the novel as a guide, I will describe Sara’s attempts to forge a unity between these competing values in order to reconcile her relationship with an estranged father, Reb Smolinsky. Further, I will endeavor to apply lessons from Sara’s uneasy circumstances, to give my own theory on how immigrants are able to achieve the kind of synthesis that Sara did in her own journey through conflict. To understand how the novel represents the two competing values faced by Sara Smolinsky, it is important to perceive her background of poverty and helplessness.
Sara’s family consists of her mother, father Reb and three sisters – all immigrant Jews who live in the Lower East Side area of New York City, in the early 1900’s, a period which saw large-scale immigration into America from Eastern Europe. Throughout the novel, it is depicted that each character is able to adapt to their new homeland through a supportive mechanism which allows them to incorporate new values, and evolve from their fixed mindsets. Out of all of them, Sara stands out due to her rebellious spirit which was throttled by Reb Smolinsky, the father, who represents a male-dominated patriarchal society which is very much in odds with early wave feminism of the 20th century. In Reb’s orthodox world-view, women are little better than chattel that have been solely made to serve the purpose of man.
He refuses to work, rather preferring to pursue his religious vocations. But, the women in the household step out of their conservative boundaries to become bread-winners for the family. This is an amalgamation of the women’s traditional roles as home-makers along with the spirit of free enterprise and equal division of labor, which characterizes America. For instance, Bessie, the eldest daughter is seen as the “burden bearer” (39) as she is shown early on working hard, bringing food to the table. In a similar fashion, Reb’s wife Shenah, experienced a “slight transformation in her traditional role of a housewife” (Yezierska 45). While back home in Eastern Europe, she would be content serving her husband, not looking for employment outside home, being in America was an entirely unfamiliar experience. Her daughter Sara went a step further, freely mingling with different cultures, neighbors and other external influences.
This shaped her mind enough to see there was no real need for her to depend on her father or future husband to nurture a family. She saw the wisdom of joining the workforce to augment her traditional role of a mother and wife. Clearly, Sara’s transformation was not unusual given the fact that the family faced acute poverty and Reb refused to work. Being cold, manipulative and controlling, Reb does not consider it bizarre to berate and humiliate his wife and four daughters. The novel shows that Reb is is no frame of mind to reconcile his past with his present, but it was more from the point of view of a cultural shock.
Over a period of time, Sara Smolinsky, as depicted in the novel, becomes an All-American girl, for which all credit goes to her inclusive upbringing in America, which is in contrast to her sisters who mostly grew up in Eastern Europe. The novel’s portrayal of Sara’s struggles with different value systems, offers an interesting perspective into how immigrants can achieve this level of synthesis. Evidently, Sara represents a second generation of Smolinsky’s and her mind refuses to accept the orthodoxy and rigid values enforced by his totalitarian father. Compared to other daughters who toe their mother’s line in obeying the ill-natured father, Sara grows into somewhat of a rebel from the very outset.
Having been brought up on American ideals of hard work, freedom and individual rights, she starts loathing her father for his spineless character and manipulative nature which had brought so much pain and untold misery to the family. As the novel progresses, the schism between the two grows wider and Sara eventually breaks free from her father by announcing her relocation from their ramshackled, Lower East side tenement into a place where she will earn her upkeep by working hard as a laundry-woman, and studying hard at night to make something of her life. Seeing her sisters’ lives utterly ruined by her father’s insensitive decisions, Sara eventually decides she wouldn’t marry any man but the one who can be loved by her, which she indeed does in the end. In fact, she takes strong exception to one of her earlier suitors who believes that “money makes the wheels go round” (Yezierska 199). At the height of her desperation and anger, Sara lashes out at her father before storming out of the home to earn her own living.
Father, I’ve got to live my own life. It’s enough that Mother and the others have lived for you (Yezierska 131). Sara is quick to realize that in America, women “don’t live for their men but have their own individual identities” (Yezierska 134). She has to assert her independence, and she does it without care of consequences. However, this does not mean she is absolutely trying to forget the strong emotional attachment developed with her family. Despite her tryst with what she considers values of freedom, Sara’s heart continues to ache for her father’s welfare.
She does not utter a word of disrespect, which says a great deal about her angelic character, the fact that she hasn’t forgotten old-country traditions which seemed somewhat missing in the mechanized world surrounding the Smolinsky family. Try as much she did, Sara could not Americanize herself completely because her family upbringing, and the close-knit religious association of her father, created the right mindset for Sara to hold on to her traditional values. Basically, Sara, her three sisters, and their mother, were caught in the web of their own making, where filial piety was sacrosanct, and it was unquestionably expected of them to look after their family’s interests ahead of their own.
This is in sharp contrast to American values of independence – where young adults are expected to leave the nest as soon as they acquire the means to sustain themselves. Clinging to parents and families is a tradition that belongs to Europe, Asia and Latin America. In contrast, America’s frontier culture, and its values of independence and free will have long bid adieu to these ancient traditions. As told in the novel, Sara, “is caught in a time warp” (Yezierska 287) where it isn’t easy for her to let go of traditional values that define her identity.
She must learn to harmonize the two in order to achieve lasting peace. Again, in order to document her acculturation to the host surroundings, the novel depicts Sara as having an ability to achieve the perfect blend of her ancient family roots and newfound American dreams. She works hard to support her educational efforts, and does everything she can to achieve a strong sense of identity. Having seen the rough edges of poverty, she craves for abundance, and stops at nothing to earn all this wealth through her hard labor. Sara’s quest for independence through hard work is seen in poor light by her father who castigates her for her “evil worship of Mammon” while accusing her of having a “barren heart” (Yezierska 217). Sara does not even remotely understand these accusations, staring at her father in disbelief, because to her, the quest for wealth, and the pursuit of happiness, are quintessentially American values which every immigrant must adopt. These are the beliefs which have long escaped Reb who does not understand the fascination with sacrificing time for prayers, in order to earn more money which he believes is the root of all evil, but which he hypocritically needs for his sustenance.
Despite living in America for many years, his one-dimensional mind fails to bridge the gap between the culture he sprang from, and the country he has adopted. To this end, the novel tries to glamorize the ethics of hard work and perseverance by attributing these to Sara, who represents the second generation of immigrant children driven totally by ambition, and success, but at the same time, holding on to some of the traditional values. The ability of immigrants to amalgamate old values with new have something to do with their finite understanding of the limited worlds. To understand the theory behind why Sara attempted to make this reconciliation, a similar study in contrasts can be seen in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, where the son of an Indian-American immigrant family, loses his sense of radar when he’s asked by his father to make a choice between traditional and modern values. In conclusion, the factors that govern the desire of immigrant children to go for the peace, tranquility and serenity of their homes, is something to do with their lack of desire to lose their bearing in an unfamiliar environment.
The same mindset could possibly define Sara’s desire to integrate old and new world values.
Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers: A Struggle Between a Father of the Old World and a Daughter of the New . New York, NY: Persea Books, 1999.