Bread Givers: A Novel

by Anzia Yezierska

Other authorsAlice Kessler-Harris (Foreword)
Paperback, 2003





Persea (2003), Edition: 3, 336 pages


This masterwork of American immigrant literature is set in the 1920's on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and tells the story of Sara Smolinsky, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, who rebels against her father's rigid conception of Jewish womanhood. Photos.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Whitney_Taylor
Summary: The Smolinsky family is on the verge of starvation. The older daughters, Bessie, Mashah, and Fania, can’t find work, and Mashah spends what little money she has to make herself look more beautiful. Their father, Reb Smolinsky, doesn’t work at all, spending his days reading holy books and commandeering his daughters’ wages—his due as a Jewish father. When Mrs. Smolinsky despairs over the situation, the youngest daughter, Sara, promptly goes outside to sell herring and makes the family some money. Later, the older girls find jobs, and Mrs. Smolinsky rents out the second room, improving the family’s financial situation.

Quiet, dutiful Bessie soon falls for a young man named Berel Berenstein and invites him home for dinner one night. The rest of the family is excited for Bessie, but when Reb Smolinsky finds out, he decides he can’t live without the wages Bessie brings in. Though Berel is willing to marry Bessie without a dowry, her father says Berel must also pay for the entire wedding and set him up in business as well. Berel refuses and storms out. When he says Bessie should defy her crazy father and marry him at City Hall, Bessie says she doesn’t dare. Berel promptly gets engaged to someone else, crushing Bessie’s spirit.

Mashah is the next daughter to find a romance that Reb Smolinsky considers inappropriate. She falls in love with Jacob Novak, a piano player from a rich family. Mashah’s father disapproves of the match and blackmails Jacob into staying away for several days, breaking Mashah’s heart. When Jacob comes back to beg for forgiveness, Mashah feels defeated enough to stand by and let her father kick Jacob out for playing piano on the Sabbath. Reb Smolinsky also disapproves of Fania’s sweetheart, a poor poet named Morris Lipkin, and shames him away. He then arranges marriages for all three girls, which leave them all desperately unhappy. Sara is furious with her father for what he’s done to her sisters, but her age and gender leave her powerless.

Despite Mrs. Smolinsky’s warning, Reb Smolinsky takes all of the money he got from Bessie’s marriage and sinks it into a grocery store that the previous owner had filled with fake stock. Sara and Mrs. Smolinsky must again scramble for survival, and each day they endure increasing criticism from Reb Smolinsky. One day, Sara reaches her breaking point. She runs away from home and decides to become a teacher. She plans to live with either Bessie or Mashah, but both have been beaten down by poverty and bad marriages. Instead, she rents a small, dirty, private room of her own. To pay for it, Sara finds a day job in a laundry, using her nights to study and take classes.

The life Sara has chosen is not easy. She faces discrimination for being a woman and living alone; her fellow workers ostracize her; her mother begs her to come home more often; and her unhappy sisters nag her to find a husband of her own. On top of all this, Sara is desperately lonely, and when she is visited by an acquaintance of Fania’s, Max Goldstein, she nearly marries him and gives up her dream of seeking knowledge. When she realizes Max is interested only in possessions, however, she refuses him. When Reb Smolinsky hears of this, he’s so furious with Sara that he promptly disowns her.

College is another struggle against poverty and loneliness, but Sara wants so badly to be like the clean, beautiful people around her that she perseveres and graduates. She gets a job in the New York school system, buys nicer clothing, and rents a cleaner, larger apartment as a celebration of her new financial independence. Her excitement ends quickly, however, when she learns that her mother, whom she hasn’t visited in six years, is dying. Though her mother’s deathbed wish is that Sara take care of her father, Reb Smolinsky quickly gets remarried to Mrs. Feinstein, a widow who lives upstairs. His daughters are deeply offended by this insult to their mother, and after Mrs. Feinstein tries to extort money from her new stepchildren, all of them decide to stop speaking to their father.

Furious at her unexpected poverty, Mrs. Feinstein writes a nasty letter to Hugo Seelig, the principal of Sara’s school. The letter, however, actually draws Hugo and Sara together, and their bond tightens as they talk of their shared heritage in Poland. This new relationship finally marks the end of Sara’s loneliness, and in her new happiness, she decides once again to reach out to her father. Hugo does this as well, and the novel ends with the implication that Reb Smolinsky will soon escape his new wife by moving in with Hugo and Sara. Sara’s life has come full circle.

Personal Reaction: I surprisingly liked this book. It showed just how poor everyone was back in the late 1800's early 1900's. I read this book this semester for my History class. The struggle's and hardship Sara overcame is something everyone can relate to.

Classroom Extension: I would have the students research the kinds of jobs available and what quailifications you had to have them. Also how much an annual household made.
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LibraryThing member doxtator
As pertinent today as when it was first written. It is the story of Old World parents and New World children, with the focus on the story of one daughter who watches her father ruin the futures of her older sisters and who refuses to accept her lot in life and strives for a better future. Stark and beautiful, it is defly told. The narrative is easy to get into, and because of the language-style used it is both captivating and a fast read.… (more)
LibraryThing member writestuff
Sara Smolinsky lives in a crowded, dreary tenement apartment on the east side of New York City with her Orthodox rabbi father, her hard-working mother and her three sisters. The youngest of her siblings, Sara watches as her tyrannical father berates and verbally abuses them. One by one, Sara’s sisters give up their dreams of marrying for love and find themselves matched to men who are gamblers, liars, and misogynists. Sara’s determination and iron will to make something of herself causes her to run away at age seventeen with the dream of going to college to become a teacher. Yet even when she achieves her goal, she is unable to completely free herself from the past.

Bread Givers is a novel about the clash of traditional and modern; the immigrant experience in the 1920s; the myth of the American Dream; hypocrisy in religion; and the dawn of women’s rights. Set in New York City’s east side, the book explores the horror of poverty and the drudgery of work in the sweat shops and on the streets to earn a few pennies for a loaf of bread and a bit of soup. Hard work, unhappiness, and poverty take their toll on each character in turn.

Beauty was in that house. But it had come out of Mashah’s face. The sunny colour of her walls had taken the colour out of her cheeks. The shine of her pots and pans had taken the lustre out of her hair. And the soda with which she had scrubbed the floor so clean, and laundered her rags to white, had burned in and eaten the beauty out of her hands. – from Bread Givers, page 147 -

Sara narrates her story beginning at the age of ten and continuing through her teens and into adulthood. Often the language of the novel is awkward with unusual word choices – reading like a work in translation. It was hard for me to understand if this was intentional (as a way to demonstrate the stilted English of an immigrant) or unintentional, but the end result was a novel that felt unedited or in draft form.

A review of Bread Givers would not be complete without an examination of one of the central characters. Reb Smolinsky, Sara’s father, is a man drenched in the piousness of his religion and filled with hypocrisy. He preaches that material gain on earth will make Heaven unattainable, yet he clings to his daughters for the money they bring in to support him and ruins his family with a bad business deal which he sees as a get rich quick scheme.

“What! Sell my religion for money? Become a false prophet to the Americanized Jews! No. My religion is not for sale. I only want to go into business so as to keep sacred my religion. I want to get into some quick money-making thing that will not take up too many hours a day, so I could get most of my time for learning.” – from Bread Givers, page 111 -

Reb Smolinsky is a tyrant, a bully, and a misogynist. His views of women are steeped in tradition and rigidly held. When it comes to his daughters, he does not consider their happiness, but instead looks at what they can offer him.

The prayers of his daughters didn’t count because God didn’t listen to women. Heaven and the next world were only for men. Women could get into Heaven because they were wives and daughters of men. Women had no brains for the study of God’s Torah, but they could be the servants of men who studied the Torah. Only if they cooked for the men, and washed for the men, and didn’t nag or curse the men out of their homes; only if they let the men study the Torah in peace, then, maybe, they could push themselves into Heaven with the men, to wait on them there. – from Bread Givers, page 9 -

But, despite the flaws in Reb Smolinsky, he does manage to give his youngest daughter the will and determination to seek her own happiness. When Sara flees her horrible home life and strikes out on her own, she learns something about sacrifice to achieve her goals. She also begins to appreciate the traits in her father which she now sees in herself.

I had it from Father, this ingrained something in me that would not let me take the mess of pottage. – from Bread Givers, page 202 -

Anzia Yezierska lived a very similar life to her protagonist Sara. Brought up in abject poverty as a Polish immigrant, she fled her family at age seventeen to make a life for herself. In Bread Givers, perhaps her most autobiographical work, she explores the themes of her own childhood and young adulthood.

Bread Givers is a simple and familiar story of rags to riches. This is not a book which blew me away with its writing (in fact, the writing is, in many ways, flawed), but I do think it offers a glimpse into the immigrant experience in America. My biggest complaint is that the characters are stereotypical: the father is too evil, the mother too downtrodden and sacrificing, the sisters too compliant to the old world traditions, the heroine too successful at finding her happiness. Despite this, I do think Bread Givers will appeal to some readers who are interested in immigration and feminist issues during the early part of the twentieth century as it provides a backdrop to a larger discussion.
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LibraryThing member snapplechick
Sara Smolinsky lives in a small house in the Neww York's Lower East Side during the 1920's. Her family is poverty stricken and she has had to work every day since she was 9 or 10. Her father refuses to work because he says his job is to study the Torah. As she grows up, her three older sisters are forced to reject the men they love and marry to disgusting, ltying, men their ftaher has picked for them. Sara overcomes all of the examples that shes lived through and lives out her dream of becoming a teacher.

This book had a great story that took you on a roller coaster. You feel angry at the father, then pity, then happiness, then suspense, then joy, then sadness, and then love. The book is really great if you have to do an assignment on because it has so much to relate to and an easy plot to follow. Anyone can apreciate this story.
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LibraryThing member suesbooks
I read this book a second time for a book group. The first time I loved it, but this time I was displeased with the cartoonish portrayal of characters in the first section. I did think the rest of the book was valuable, and it provided much insight in to the lives of immigrants in the early 20th century.
LibraryThing member Ruthe817
Interesting portrait of an Orthodox rabbi as he marries offf his daughters to men they don't love. Only Sara, the youngest daughter is able to resist. Set during the 19 20's on the Lower East Side, it is the story of Sara's struggle towards independence.
LibraryThing member SummerLester
Bread Givers is a novel about 4 young immigrant sisters and their family. The story tells of their struggle particularly one sister who doesn't conform to the way her strict Jewish father thinks she should.

I enjoyed this book for an odd reason, I don't like history. This book was required during my history course this semester. Reading this while studying the same era made history come alive for me.

In the classroom I would use this book in a study of history, late 19th century to early 20th century. It would also be a great resourse when studying the struggle women have had in history.
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LibraryThing member jentifer
This is a work of fiction, but it is heavily based on the life of Anzia Yezierska and her immigrant family's struggles in the Lower East Side. This is an interesting piece of work as both literature, and a sociological and historical text.
LibraryThing member MarysLibrary
This gripping novel of the American Jewish immigrant experience was first published in 1925. Written from the point of view of an increasingly Americanized daughter it tells the story of a father who, as he sees his daughters betginning to break from the traditions of life in the old country, becomes a tyrant. The narrator leaves home to study nights while working in laundries. She eventually goes to college and becomes a teacher, but she realizes that she has been able to achieve this because of what she learned from her father.… (more)
LibraryThing member Bookish59
Very sad but beautiful story of an immigrant family.
LibraryThing member Clancy.Coonradt
Very powerful book giving a great insight into the hardships women have faced in history, and how the family unit itself can be one of the main forces hindering the progress of women's rights.
LibraryThing member Lindsey_Mcdowell
This book is about an immigrant family. The story is told and focuses on a young girl name sara and her life. She has two sisters whom all three are verbally and physically abused by their father whom they just wish to be accepted by. They live in American and all have dreams of marrying, and going on to better themselves and make better lives for themselves. the sisters Slowly give up on their dreams and fall into the same path as the mother and father. Sara will not give up on her dreams though, she continues to push and she goes to college. In the end despite all the hardships and obstacles she reaches her goals and reaches.

Personal Reaction
I read this book for a past history class and was quite reluctant to pick it up. thinking it was going to be so historical and drag on. yet when i started reading the book i couldnt put it down. The struggle and the relatability to some of our everyday life situations makes you really be able to relate to it and keeps you interested.

Classroom Extension
1. This book could be used in a high school or maybe junior high class when you are in a unit talking about the holocaust and hitler.
2. this book could also be used when the classroom is learning about immigration
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LibraryThing member Kyle_Peters
Bread Givers is the story of a ten year old girl named Sara Smolinsky who lives with her Jewish immigrant family in New York. Her mother fusses over her girls and plays favorites while her father obsesses over the Torah and his cultural roots all day long. Poor and starving, Sara's father refuses to get a job insisting that studying scripture is the most important thing in life. Sara ventures out and finds ways to make money in the busy streets of New York. Her parents eventually come into some money and buy their own grocery store which ends up being a sham. All the stores goods were fake or filled with sawdust and the family falls back to square one. After arguing with her father, Sara ends up running away and attending school. She works her way up the social and economic ladder and deals with many issues associated with her Jewish ancestry. After obtaining a job as a school teacher, she meets a man who works in the school and begins dating him. She finally decides to visit her family and discovers that her mother is on her death bed. Her mother passes away and her father soon marries another woman who is intent on bleeding him dry of his money. In the end, Sara talks with her father while he is fatally ill and discovers that family—no matter how bad they were/are to you—is a root of who you are and where you come from.… (more)
LibraryThing member brangwinn
This book was recommended in a class on Immgration. Fascinating story about a Polish Jewish family on the Lower East Side of NYC in the 1920's and the challenge one of the daughters had to get out from under the thumb of her Talmud reading father. Just as interesting is the foreward by Alice Kellser-Harris who found the original book in NYPL and had the book republished.… (more)
LibraryThing member juniperSun
The family life of Polish-Jewish immigrant family in the 1920's (?) told by the youngest daughter. A family ruled by the patriarchal father, sunk in poverty. Sarah has an iron will and leaves home, working her way thru school.
I quickly read it in a day, picking up insight into the emotional background of a friend, daughter of immigrants.… (more)
LibraryThing member knotbox
Quick read, enjoyable story, despite their hardships, giving insights to the changes not only immigrants but all people were facing in the inter-war period. Good perspective of the city, especially life on the lower-east side.
LibraryThing member WarBetweentheBooks
This book was read for my Introduction to Literature class.

When I first started to read the book I found myself really annoyed with the sentence syntax and how it was almost absolutely impossible for me to really understand what was happening without reading every sentence at least three times. Yet because I needed to read this book for my class I could not put it off without my grade suffering. So I tried to not let it bug me and within a few chapters I finally succeeded.

The story is a very character driven one or at least that is what my Literature professor said. I am forced to believe this because many of the characters you will either love or hate. I found that when I disliked a character after I first met them that I could not find any reason to like them afterward even though the author tried so hard to redeem them.

I liked the idea of the story but the execution was a little off for me. Most of the characters actions was like reading a telenovela. They were all over acted and too dramatic. They continually pull out their hair and at one point a character was said to be slamming her head against the wall. Then there was the fact that the main character let herself be emotionally manipulated by every character around her. I am just not a very forgiving person when it comes to characters that let people walk all over them. Lets just say that my eyes got a huge workout with how often that I rolled my them at the characters and their actions.
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Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

336 p.; 5.3 inches


0892552905 / 9780892552900

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