The Bread Givers


If you are American, and probably even if you are not, you have heard this story before: determined immigrant leaves the Old World behind to seek their fortune in the New; working their way out of a life of crushing poverty, they encounter the prejudices of those better-established than they are, and struggle to find a balance between honoring the traditions of their family while at the same time becoming acculturated to their new, adopted country. Anzia Yezierska's The Bread Givers presents this archetypal plot-line with little to no variation: the specifics of the Smolinsky family's Polish, Orthodox Jewish background and their life on Hester street in New York City's Lower East Side tenements, let alone the characterization of individual family members, often seem secondary to the overwhelming familiarity of the plot. I found this to be particularly true due to Yezierska's simplistic, episodic style of narration, which skips from event to event, sometimes encapsulating whole years in two or three pages, and allowing most characters to remain mere sketches rather than rounded individuals.

Given these initial reactions, though, there are a few things that distinguish The Bread Givers from other versions of the "immigrant experience novel." Surprisingly unusual, especially given its 1925 publication date, is the simple fact that Yezierska's narrator protagonist, Sara Smolinsky, is a woman. Reading of Sara's clashes with her Orthodox rabbi father, I was reminded of such modern immigration tales as Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory—in both of which, as in The Bread Givers, the female protagonist's primary point of conflict is with the traditions and assumptions of her family or culture of origin, rather than with the dominant American culture. Sara, for example, manages to win over her initially aloof professors and college classmates, but making peace with her own father is much more challenging. This is, of course, also true of many immigrant tales with male protagonists (Chaim Potok's The Chosen leaps to mind), but I wonder if it's a more common theme in those centering around women. Even in The Chosen, Danny has only to fight against his father's prescriptiveness, which stems from a cultural assumption that he is too precious, too valuable to make his own decisions. Sara Smolinsky, on the other hand, struggles against cultural assumptions that she is worth nothing, has no value of her own outside of serving men:

"God put people on earth to get married and have children yet. It says in the Torah, Breed and multiply. A woman's highest happiness is to be a man's wife, the mother of a man's children. You're not a person at all. What do you make from yourself? Why do you hold yourself better than the whole world?"

Indeed, this concept of "a person" is one of the more interesting linguistic specifics in The Bread Givers, and forms a thematic thread outlining Sara's attempts to clarify her own goals in life. She wants to be "a person" in her own eyes and the eyes of the world, and perceives her home of origin—a cramped tenement on Hester Street—to be below the "bottom starting point" on the road to this goal. In some contexts, "a person" seems to mean simple humanity, as in Reb Smolinksy's quote above. In this sense, Sara's comment about her family's living quarters is strictly true: they are living in de-humanizing conditions. But "a person" or "a person among people" can also mean more than this. When little Sara goes in search of herring to re-sell cheaply, she insists on paying for them: "I want to go into business like a person. I must buy what I got to sell." Likewise, upon leasing her first flat away from her family, she thinks of the closing door as "the bottom starting point of becoming a person." After her graduation from college, she muses "How grand it felt to lean back in my chair, a person among people, and order anything I wanted from the menu." Being a "person," then, relates to economic and lived independence—the ability to assert one's own selfhood. It also relates to self-respect; "a person among people" doesn't make money or secure lodgings any way she can, but does it in a manner that lets her respect herself. A real "person" is also respected by those around her, accepted and valued by others who also live up to the standard of person-hood. To Reb Smolinsky, this means allying his family with others further up the social ladder:

"The impudence of that long-haired beggar—wanting to push himself into my family! I'm a person among people. How would I look before the world if I introduced such a hunger-squeezed nobody for a son-in-law?"

For Sara, on the other hand, it means self-actualization, and finding a community that values the same things she does, that shares her estimation of her own value:

"Don't worry. I'll even get married some day. But to marry myself to a man that's a person, I must first make myself for a person.

Fully "being a person," I suppose, means at the most basic level that one matters, that one asserts one's own value, and that one has succeeded in finding a community that agrees with that assertion.

Another thought-provoking element of The Bread Givers was its depiction of Rabbi Smolinsky's self-justification for living off the labors of his wife and daughters. Despite my utter secularism, I must say that the value placed on textual study and reasoned, informed argument is something I find pretty inspirational about the tradition of Judaism. I may not restrict my own textual analysis to scripture (or even, I may as well admit, include scripture in the texts I study), but I do feel strongly the spiritual importance, in my own life, of keeping sacred some time to study, to think and reason, to engage with texts, to discuss and interpret. In order for that activity to remain sacred, however, I feel it must either be self-supported, or supported consensually by one's whole community (a congregational ministry model, in which the rabbi or minister is presumably giving something of value BACK to the community supporting him or her—and let me just acknowledge that in my limited experience of modern-day rabbis and ministers, many are radically underpaid for the value they offer their congregations). Reb Smolinsky's self-satisfied assumption that he deserves to live off the sweat of his wife and daughters, while only contributing to their spiritual well-being through berating them with self-serving aphorisms, is therefore undeniably horrifying to me, as it becomes to Sara herself.

And I wonder if the mixture of "traditional" American values with Smolinsky's Orthodox background, make for a particularly violent collision. After all, the United States is known for fetishizing individualism, particularly male individualism, and particularly male individualism that manifests itself in monetary earnings. Americans, collectively, are obsessed with the notion of the "self-made man." When Americans come into contact with a culture or an individual that values knowledge, education, or artistic expression over self-earned income, we are often at a loss. Reb Smolinsky's case is more complex than this: he obviously does value wealth, and uses it as a yardstick to measure the worth of his daughter's suitors and others, but one gets the sense that this kind of value exists, for him, on one level, whereas he himself exists on a more rarefied plane. Whether this is a genuine belief of his or a mere self-justification for his hypocrisy, it's severely problematic, especially since he is unwilling or unable to acknowledge that others may not share his own priorities. Sara, for example, has moments of admiration for her father's dedication to his Torah studies, but he is largely incapable of admiration for her own drive to educate herself, let alone of respecting her on her own terms.

So um, not sure how long I'm going to keep this up, but...


Hibbledy hobbledy
Sara Smolinsky, she
Worked her way up from the
Lower East Side;

Fighting her patriarch's
Hellfire and brimstone helped
Toughen her hide.


The Bread Givers was the Wolves selection for January; join us the last weekend of February for Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt!

And with the internet as my witness, y'all, that is my first and last New York City novel of 2011. As long as you don't count Paterson, New Jersey as NYC.


  • You're going to read Paterson? Fun! Interesting response to Bread Givers; I enjoyed it very much when I read it a decade or so ago, although I wasn't as familiar with immigrant narratives at the time and so didn't feel the familiarity of the plot so much. I found the main character's struggles for individuality fascinating too, and I like your analysis of the uneasy relationship between American values and Smolinsky's Orthodox tradition. By rebelling against him, Sara is turning herself into the perfect self-made American, the female version.

    • Actually I was just planning to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is set in Paterson, but I do really want to read Paterson as well! Maybe I should switch up my US reading by cramming as many Paterson-related books as possible. Which would probably amount to...well, those two, really. :-) Thanks for the nice words.

  • This seems to be quite the month for tyrannical fathers--although Mahfouz's patriarch seems much less a pimp than the Smolinsky dad! Have to say that I sort of enjoyed the tension between poor Sara and her Torah-quoting father, of whom you do such good a job describing here. Not sure why, though, since there are so many caricaturish elements in place alongside the culturally interesting things you mention. Maybe the dad was just so outlandish that you never knew what type of disaster he'd be cooking up next!

    • I know, right? I'm ready to read something where the dad is cool & supportive. :-)

      Agree that there were a lot of caricaturish aspects, but also some interesting points to investigate. And yeah, I was blown away by Rabbi Smolinsky's ability to turn any dunder-headed thing he'd done to the account of the women in his family. The nerve!

  • I know this part. It's the part where every kid in class just sits quiet, not sure how to react or to even respond at all after the lengthy, unexpected, and overwhelmingly thoughtful discourse by the girl in front. I suppose there in States an applause would be in order. Here in the Philippines, kids turning their heads, looking at each other and smiling speechless might be a more usual scenario :)

    And I missed this. This part where I make pretend like I'm in class again, in some really brainy college class like one I never had; just by sitting here in my room, reading another one of your fashionably smart commentaries... And I know because I have a smile on my face right this moment.

    It's nice to read your thoughts again, Emily :)

  • It's so true as you say that "In order for that activity to remain sacred, however, I feel it must either be self-supported, or supported consensually by one's whole community." The way in which yeshiva men were/are totally supported in their efforts by the sweat of wives and daughters also brings to mind the way the Founding Fathers were able to study and pontificate and legislate because of being totally supported by hundreds of slaves. There must be a better way....

    • Great parallel with the Founding Fathers, Jill! In both cases the situation is totally unjust, yet in both cases I can kind of understand the rationale of the people in power, as much as I disagree with it. I agree that a better alternative is needed.

  • Your questions about the intersection of (religious) education and money is at the core of a great deal of the fiction of Jewish immigration, whether explicitly or implicitly. Many authors frame it as the central question of assimilation--but I think it goes back before immigration, as you suggest. How gender fits into this question is a fascinating point, and one I've only seen discussed in a woman's right (or lack thereof) to education. Love your analysis.

    • Wow, LifetimeReader, thanks for your insights on this - I didn't realize that the education/money question is such a central and wide-ranging one, as I've read a minimum of Jewish immigration stories, at least since middle & high school. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  • The fact that Reb Smolinsky didn't give a thing back to his family - not wisdom, not appreciation, and rarely a prayer even though they seemed to love hearing them - is what made me crazy about him. Like you said, it's one thing to be supported by your community if you're giving them back something valuable in return. He's inability to even see his family was incredible. Sara's journey to becoming 'a person' was interesting to me, and while overall I wasn't blown away by the book, there were definitely a few things that struck me. Excellent review once again Emily!

    • Thanks, Sarah! Yeah, he was definitely a taker, that old Reb Smolinsky. Not a giver. Not even a noticer, as you point out - one of the most frustrating things was his unwillingness or inability to acknowledge Sara, despite the fact that so many of her traits obviously came from him.

  • Even with a female protagonist, I felt like I had read this story a million times before. I think what distinguishes Bread Givers is its publication date and the fact that it's a primary source but fictionalized so as to be more accessible. Still, except for the Torah references, I almost felt like I could have written this myself. It is very generalized and episodic.

    I'm pretty secular myself, but I have to say that if I was an Orthodox Jewish man, full-time Torah study might sound appealing. But like you said, I would also feel obligated to give back to the community for supporting me, maybe as a teacher so I can impart some of that knowledge. Reb Smolinsky didn't do jack, which angered me a lot more than Al-Sayyid Ahmad ever did. At least Al-Sayyid Ahmad did stuff besides sit around all day and be a jerk.

    • And WHAT stuff he did! :-)

      But seriously, I totally agree with you. Reb Smolinsky's assumption of entitlement to total idleness while his family members worked was infuriating. Even if, given the choice, I would probably choose to live in the Smolinsky family rather than the al-Jawad one as a female, just because of the opportunity, however difficult, to leave and better myself. And, you know, leave the house and see things now and then. It's actually kind of funny, how the two men's tyranny took opposite forms - in one case he doesn't allow any of his female family members to leave the house; in the other case he never wants to leave it himself!

  • This sounds fascinating and definitely one that I would like to read with my own book group, especially as our last read, 'Gifted' by Nikita Lalwani, has a similar female take on the question of the immigrant being tied by the expectation of the family tradition rather than by anything she encounters in the country to which they have moved. However, I'm not recommending that you read that as it is nowhere near as interesting a book as the one you have discussed here.

    • It might make an interesting comparison given that you've already read a book with some of the same themes, Annie - hope you enjoy it if/when your book group gets around to it! :-)

  • And I still kept wondering throughout if what we saw and deplored in the father was personality or culture? The multiple questions of assimilation and then the ending where we wonder if escape from one's roots is ever entirely possible. But still an obvious and kind of sappy tug of war between head and heart.

    • It's true - the father, like all of the characters, was more or less an everyman figure. The "Every cranky Old World Rabbi," if you will. Would any similarly socialized person act like him in his place? Probably to a large extent, although I like to think some similarly-socialized men were/are a little wiser and less selfish.

  • Your post is so thoughtful! It may have even made me appreciate the novel more. I think that devoting one's life to deep study of any text is admirable and definitely contributes to a community/nation's culture. It's similar to the debate about who will fund the arts. Since oftentimes art doesn't perform a specific function (like building a house gives someone a place to live), but the arts are so important to and enrich the lives of so many people.

    I admired with Reb Smolinsky when he chose to take his books to America, rather than more practical items, like pots and pans, saying they could just buy new ones in America, but they could never replace his books. As someone who is very attached to her books, I would have a hard time leaving them behind (the what would you grab if there was a fire question also applies).

    • Thanks so much for the nice words, Shannyn! Yes, I think the arts funding debate is a good parallel - provided, of course, that the community is actually getting something back from the textual study going on (education, spiritual guidance, etc.), I can definitely see supporting a contingent of people who do that. And I can also see the value of dedicating time away from one's vocation. In both art and ministry, moreover, there seems to be an idea that you have more "integrity" if you're doing your work while starving in the street, which is just ridiculous. I believe in supporting the artists and ministers who add value to our lives - but not the ones who act like Reb Smolinsky!

  • From the beginning I thought you were going to launch into how cliched the story ended up being but then such a wonderful discussion of what being a person means! The book sounds like it ended up being quite good with lots of tasty ideas to chew over.

    • I am on a kind of "find something interesting to discuss even if I didn't love the book" kick - I can understand how it might read as mixed signals! Did think the storyline was pretty general and the characters somewhat cliched, but there were some compelling touches as well. I could still have wished for some greater depth, but it was a good starting point for a discussion, at least.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography