BREAD GIVERS

By Anzia Yezierska
New York: Persea Books, First published in 1925. Persea edition from 2003
ISBN # 0-89255-290-5
297 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2011

I just chanced upon this book at a recent book fair I attended. Something about it attracted me and I brought it home. What a delightful discovery. This novel, first published in 1925, is the sensitive and tragic story of a family of Russian Jewish immigrants to the U.S. They take up residence in a very poor, mainly Jewish ghetto in New York city. Father, an Orthodox Jew who, while not a rabbi, has dedicated his life to the study of the sacred Jewish texts. He is radically conservative and traditional, believing that he is a very special holy man and that his family should support him so that he can honor God with his studies.

He has no income nor money at all. As the novel opens, three of his four daughters are in the work force at the lowest level wages. They are expected to turn all their earnings over to their father who first gives at least 10% of it away to various Jewish charities, then buys the holy books he needs and the rest goes to Mamma for food, rent and other family expenses. There is never enough money.

The novel is told by Sara, the youngest daughter who is only about 10 when she begins her narration. Bessie is the oldest sister, Fania next, Mashah the second youngest and a great beauty whom many men desire. This family of six live a life of extreme poverty.

As the girls grow the question of their marriages come to the fore and Fatherís primary concern is the loss of their income, so he is very concerned to marry them to rich men so that they can continue to support him and his lifestyle. He thinks he has done this, but in both cases he fails miserably.

Sara is quite different. She does not want to live the lives she sees her sisterís forced into and even dreams of studying at night school and eventually going to university so that she might become a teacher. She is as headstrong as her father, and a significant part of the novel is the bitter battle between Sara and her father on how she chooses to live her life, fully in rejection of his values and even his person.

The novel is gripping in its detail of the poverty of these immigrants and the nature of their struggles. It is well-written and rises far above the level of much writing of this period and situation which often tends toward the melodramatic. Author Anzia Yezierska made me believe she was writing with first-hand knowledge of this poverty and describing it as it was. The same is true of the sections on the battles with Father over the lives these young women will lead, and the catastrophic battle when Sara shows strong signs of become Americanized.

This is not a light book. The misery, struggle, frustrations and contradictions never cease. Yet it isnít really a depressing novel. Rather I found it troubling, thought provoking and believable. I couldnít help but think this had to be significantly autobiographical for the author.

I would highly recommend to all readers this relatively little known work. Anzia Yezierska is a top flight writer.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu