Bread Givers follows the story of Sara Smolinsky, a Jewish immigrant in the early 1900s who is determined to escape the fate of her three older sisters: a life dictated by the wills of men. Their father is a religious zealot who lives off his daughters’ wages, dooming them to lives of hard labor and unhappy marriages. After seeing her three sisters suffer the same misery, Sara resolves to be her own bread giver, even if it means a life of loneliness.
The novel was first published in 1925, but its questions about religion and feminism remain relevant. The reader is drawn in as Sara poses questions about the merits of independence versus the virtues of family and the stark differences in American class. One can only imagine that Anzia Yezierska’s own loneliness was eased by the hope that young readers would one day answer these questions.
As Deborah Feldman notes in her introduction, the book’s language “forms a literary bridge defying all laws of metaphorical engineering.” Yezierska’s artful quilting of English, Yiddish, and poetically descriptive phrases helps ground the story in time and place while also imbuing it with a sense of timelessness. Her observations are equally moving and vivid. She pays particular attention to activities that highlight the precarity of the body, like eating and applying makeup. When Sara’s mother skims the fat off the family’s soup to give to her husband, or when Sara applies rouge to her cheeks for a date after weeks of hard work and near-starvation, it’s impossible not to respond viscerally.
While the stakes for Sara are high, Yezierska makes sure to capture small, quiet moments of pleasure — and pain — too. The reader shares Sara’s excitement during her first day of work as a fish hawker, when she yells on the street and feels the weight of hard-earned pennies in her hand. One feels a similar thrill when Sara heads to college, and her exhilaration about her train ride keeps her from sleeping. These, Yezierska reminds the reader, are the moments that make up a life. And, for Sara, they are the ones that make life — on one’s own terms — worth living.
Adina Applebaum is a Program Associate at the Whiting Foundation. She lives in New York.