Bread Givers

Anzia Yezier­s­ka

  • Review
By – May 12, 2023

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.

Discussion Questions