Nothing stays with us in life as powerfully as the images of our parents we take with us into adulthood. A harsh father, a loving mother, a single parent who was on the edge of exhaustion, but always available... The emotions attached to these memories affect our adult decisions. These recollections influence how we see ourselves, who we believe we can be in the adult world, and who we see when we look in the morning mirror.
In the equity of the universe, it seems unfair that the species which spends the most time in its home before heading into the world is most influenced by its parents. When looking across the animal kingdom, lion cubs are ready to hunt for themselves after a number of months. Sea turtles are born on the beaches, devoid of any parental influence.
Those lucky enough to make it back to water are immediately on their own. What about birds that sit in the nest for a few weeks, and then are pushed out, to fly, or fail?
Many young adult homo-sapiens leap into maturity with much the attitude. It's my time to fly. Yet as people, we live in social system infinitely more complex than lions, turtles, or birds. So why, in the cosmic order of things, do human children spend 16-20 years under the care of their parents, only to leap into the world, and still be affected by the images of their parents strengths and weaknesses, sometimes for the rest of their lives?
Langston Hughes and Anzia Yezierska were as different from one another as turtles and lions. Each started their lives in this country as part of poor minority families. Anzia lived in the ghettos of early 20th century Manhattan, and the Langston in the conflict between slave owners and abolitionists of the Midwest. Anzia's father lived in her home, and her family had a strong heritage as Russian Jews who had immigrated to the U.S. with hundreds of others from their homeland. Langston grew up in the care of his grandmother, in a lonely farm in Kansas. His father was a lawyer in Mexico, and his mother made her livelihood on the stages in Kansas City. In the midst of this dissimilarity, these two writers left images of their desires, and their experiences with their parents, particularly their fathers, on the pages they penned. One could say that their fathers were the silent partner, contributing in unseen ways to all their work.
Anzia Yezierska's the Bread Givers
Anzia Yezierka's life rise to popularity, and financial success was a classic retelling of the American dream for a poor immigrant family. Her family immigrated to the United States in the late 1890s. They settled in the lower east side of Manhattan, and set about to both recreate the culture of their homeland, and make a new living in the new world. Much of Anzia's life was a declaration of this same sort of conflict. And to understand the writer and woman she became, one must first examine these skirmishes between old vs. new, and desire vs. reality. She lived in a new world where the land flowed with milk and honey, but in the Manhattan's lower east side, people lived in air ducts, and children sold fish in the streets for pennies. The culture of her homeland was woven into the threads of her family, yet all around this new world offered the promise of a new life for those who could reach out and embrace it. Successful immigrant families pulled themselves up out of poverty, purchased businesses, and eventually left the crowded foul streets, but Anzia's experience was different.
In this swirling maelstrom, where the old and new collided, a family needs its father to chart a course through the confusion. In Anzia's world, the patriarch was the decision maker, and the provider. He is the one who was responsible for bringing the family to the new world, and the family looked to him for guidance. However, in Anzia's case, her father would not take on the role of provider. Her father was a Talmudic Rabbi. His chosen purpose was to study the Hebrew scripture, and pray, and be able to bring the light to the world. The rabbi's did not work, but spent their time studying, and discussing the holy books in the synagogue. The burden of supporting the family was pushed down onto the wife, and children. It was the wife's and children's sacred duty to support the rabbi, and embrace this shift in responsibility regardless of the hardship it brought, because of the blessing the rabbi could bring to the world through the reading, and preaching of the holy books. As Anzia wrote of the patriarch in The Bread Givers, who was also a rabbi, "He has chosen to have his portion in the next world, not in this one."
The culture of Russia accepted this shift of family responsibility. The economic and social influence of a Russian Jewish family very likely limited to the same neighborhood for an entire lifetime. In Russia, the family would know those who were rabbis, and even come together to help a growing family so the rabbi could be free to study, and pray. This environment could meet the emotional and social needs of the family, and life continued in the same pattern for generations. However, in America, each man, woman and child were not only expected to pull his or her own weight, but the promise of a better life was held out like a carrot on a string before them. All around Anzia's family was the evidence that men and women could better themselves. Glistening white buildings on the upper end of Manhattan rose in stark contrast to her family's dirty, dreary apartment. Some men and women had clean clothes, carriages, and enough money to eat in restaurants. The evidence, and the opportunity was a daily reminder of what could be, yet Anzia's own father remained locked in his heritage, and his chosen clerics role.
From this conflict, Anzia's personal experiences splashed onto pages with unusual clarity. The Bread Givers is seen as her finest work, possibly because it flowed from her heart, and her personal experience.
On these pages she was able to argue with her father. She was able to describe in detail the choices her family had to make in order to survive.
She was able, with some sort of finality, to justify her own actions to the world, possibly to herself, but most importantly, to her father. She was able to put her own family onto paper, and look at it from outside the day-to-day experience of begging for bread. She was able to say, "This is what I was, this is what I have become, and this is why."
There are four elements from The Bread Givers that give specific insight into the person Anzia became, and how this formation relates to her father's role in her, and her family's life. Each is a point of conflict is a skirmish between old and new or an emotional battle between what is, what Anzia wanted, and what could be. The first, as already discussed, is the difficult economic situation created by her father's rabbinical duties. Her father was expected to lead, and provided for the family. Anzia's father lead, but did not provide. His time was given to God to study the holy books. So the economic responsibility was passed along to mama, and the children. Thus father was indirectly responsible for the lingering poverty which engulfed Anzia's early life.
Secondly, and adding to this first conflict was that religious life for Anzia's family was not like that of other American's. Many religious practices are more of a club membership. Christians attend church once, or twice a week. Beyond this, their religious involvement is a title. Anzia's Jewish heritage, however, was a lifestyle. Every aspect of life was affected by the Orthodox Jewish tradition. The family followed dietary laws. On the Sabbath, when other children played, the Jewish community closed their doors, and rested. The Jewish calendar has 7 different festivals throughout the year, each of which points them back to ancient times when God forged his personal people form the tribes of the earth, and set them apart as his own.
In a closed social system, such as the one rural Russia provided, this lifestyle was the norm. But in America, this cloistered Jewish culture was accented by the comparison to a fast moving, promising new life. In Russia, life had continued unchanging for generations, but the enticement of America was to find the pledged new life. America was the land of freedom, personal as well as economic. To throw off her past lifestyle, and accept the promises of the new world, Anzia had to discard that which her father devoted his life to, holding onto the Jewish heritage of the past. In choosing to pursue economic progress, she was choosing…