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Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska. Specifically, it will focus mainly (without ignoring the rest of the novel) on the concept of the father, as well as on the concepts of Nativism and Nation. "Bread Givers" is the moving story of one young woman's struggle to make something of herself in a new country. She struggles against the old world ideals of her family, especially her father, who hangs on to his native customs even though he has come to America to better his family's lives. He is a cruel and demanding man who rules his home with an iron fist, until Sara stands up to him to create the life she wants for herself.
"Bread Givers," as with most of Yezierska's works, is semi-autobiographical. Like her heroine Sara, Yezierska came to America when she was young, lived on the Lower East Side in the Jewish Ghetto of New York, and constantly pushed herself to work hard, write, and rise above her beginnings. One critic writes, "Yezierska's works chronicle the lives of Jewish immigrants in America, in particular the struggles of Jewish women to escape drudgery and realize their dreams. She was critical of the patriarchal religious culture of Orthodox Judaism that transported old-world oppression to America" (Bloom 160). In addition, the introduction to this new printing of her novel states, "Her constant themes are the dirt and congestion of the tenement, the struggle against poverty, family, and tradition to break out of the ghetto, and then the searing recognition that her roots would always lie in the old world" (Kessler-Harris xvi). Written in 1925, "Bread Givers" is still current today because it speaks of the eternal struggle of the oppressed to better themselves, and the eternal struggle of women to be taken seriously in a society where "God didn't listen to women" (Yezierska 9). It is a difficult and demanding journey, but to Sara, it is worth it to be out from under her father's ruthless thumb.
Sara's father, Reb, is a cruel man who was a holy man in the old world, and respected by his peers. In the new world, he cannot assimilate to a new way of life, and so, he treats his wife and his daughters like chattel and rules over their home with an iron fist. As Sara remembers, "Women had no brains for the study of God's Torah, but they could be the servants of men who studied the Torah" (Yezierska 9-10). All Reb does is read his books and study his religion, while his family struggles to put food on the table and pay the rent. He seems cruel, lazy, and heartless, especially when he marries off his daughters to men he thinks have money, just so they can take care of him in his old age. At one point he rants, "The whole world would be in thick darkness if not for men like me who give their lives to spread the light of the Holy Torah" (Yezierska 24). Reb is sure of his own significance, and he is not afraid to show it to the rest of the family, no matter the situation. Even more important, Reb is sure that he is the only one who knows how to manage his family, and so he sees nothing wrong with ordering around the women of the family, while he sits, reads, and contemplates more "lofty" things, like the Torah. He is almost a caricature of a person, and yet, who he is influences the entire family. The women of the family know that America has more to offer than what Reb is allowing them to experience, but none of them are willing to stand up to him, except Sara.
Sara knows she wants more than what her sisters and her mother have. Her mother dies young, mainly from overwork, and her father immediately marries again, just for someone to take care of him, because he is helpless alone. He marries Sara's sisters off to men they do not love, just to show his own importance and skill at matchmaking. Sara is the only one who is strong enough to stand up to him. She tells him passionately, "I don't want to sell herring for the rest of my days. I want to learn something. I want to do something" (Yezierska 66). She broke away from the family and suffered unbelievably to educate herself. In addition, her experience gives great insight into the social and personal history of her people, and of the time. She continues, "For seventeen years I had stood his preaching and his bullying. But now all the hammering hell that I had to listen to since I was born cracked my brain ... Should I let him crush me as he crushed them? No. This is America, where children are people" (Yezierska 135). Sara's strength comes from living in a new country with new ideals, while her father cannot let go of the old country and the old country ways. His culture and nativism combine to create an immovable force that cannot change, and cannot allow those around him to change. He is unbending, unyielding, and unwilling to grow into a more understanding and loving father.
While Reb held on to his culture, Sara was also surrounded by nativism after she left home. She was persecuted because she was Jewish and female. From attempting to rent a room, to eating at the cafeteria, she saw how women and Jews were treated, and it angered her. She knew she was different, even her drab clothing, all she could afford, indicated her social status at college. She muses, "A black shirtwaist, high up to the neck. Not a breath of color. Everything about me was gray, drab, dead. I was only twenty-three and I dressed myself like an old lady in mourning" (Yezierska 181). All of these things add color and dimension to the novel, but it is clear that Yezierska must have experienced many of these same things to write about them. Thus, the book may not be a primary historical source, but it is certainly an illuminating and often distressing look at the lives of Jews and other immigrants in the early part of the 20th century in America. They were persecuted, misunderstood, and abused, all because of who they were, and Sara experienced all of it during her struggle to support herself, attend school, and create a better life for herself.
There are many indications of nativism on both sides throughout the novel, too. For example, she recounts her experience in the cafeteria, and how the servers persecuted women and Jews. Sara remembers, "My anxious eyes leaped to the faces of the servers. I tried to see which one of them served the stew. My portion depended on her mood of the minute" (Yezierska 167). She lives a hard and desperate life because she is so determined, and in doing so, she shuts herself off from the rest of the world. She wants to belong, but she is not like the girls in college, or the girls she works with in the laundry. She is caught between two worlds, and finds that she does not fit neatly in either. Even when she longs for the love of family, her selfish father rejects her. She thinks to herself, "All I could feel was the hurt of his beating me down. Just as I looked to Father for love, he rose up to stone me" (Yezierska 204). Her father is a religious man, but he is not a kind or gentle man, and he turns the entire family against him because of his selfish and cruel ways. She continues, "I no longer saw my father before me, but a tyrant from the Old World where only men where people. To him I was nothing but his last unmarried daughter to be bought and sold" (Yezierska 205). Finally, she comes to understand the paradox of her family. Her father has never loved the family; they are only there to serve him, and to make him look for formidable and successful to the community. Once she learns this, she can truly leave her past behind, and create a new life for herself, which she does. She is no longer reliant on the support and approval of her father, because she understands that she will never have it. She also understands he will never change, and mentions that at the end of the novel when she thinks, "In a world where all is changed, he alone remained unchanged -- as tragically isolate as the rocks" (Yezierska 296). He is unchanging and rigid, but perhaps the worst thing about him is that he does not prepare his daughters for a new life in a new world. As he selfishly clings to old world traditions and ways, he is shortchanging the women of the family. He does not give them the tools they need to live good, productive lives, because he is too…[continue]
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The conflict between Sara and her father mirrors that of Ana and her mother. Reb and Carmen both try to control and manipulate their daughters by appealing to traditional cultural values. Gender is at the heart of their struggle, as gender norms are critical to their old-fashioned worldviews. Interestingly, there are traditionalists in both Bread Givers and in Real Women Have Curves who retain their ethnic identities while promoting gender
Ethnicity and American Identity The basic conception of American identity in the years between Cahan's Yekl, Yezierska's The Bread Givers, and Morrison's The Bluest Eye, is essentially unchanged. Each of the characters in these novels face a conception of American identity that is drawn along racial lines, and the arc of each novel's plot is centered on each character's attempt to transcend their racial otherness to be accepted by American society.