Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska. Specifically, it will answer the question: How would you go about trying to understand and explain Reb Smolinsky? Although a work of fiction, "Bread Givers" is in truth based on the real life of writer Anzia Yezierska, who, like Sarah in the book, left home to acquire an education, something fairly unheard of for young Jewish women of her time. Sara's father, Reb, is a cruel and demanding man who stands in the way of everything his daughter hopes for, and his actions are based on old-world customs, rather than new world sensibilities.
The author, Anzia Yezierska, came to America in 1890 when she was a young girl. Her family emigrated from Poland, and settled in New York City in the Jewish section of the Lower East Side. Her story is in many ways a mirror image of the young Sara in "Bread Givers," as Anzia left home when she was seventeen to continue her education, and she created a great rift between herself and her father. Anzia began to write around 1915, and published several short stories and books. In fact, her first book was made into a Hollywood movie. She gained fame and acceptance, but in the 50s, her writing feel out of style, and she never regained her popularity. She died in 1970. Her book "Bread Givers" was rediscovered by a professor at Columbia University, and reprinted in 1999 as a classic text of life in the Jewish ghetto in New York.
Bread Givers" is a classic look into the everyday lives of Jewish emigrants who came to America for a better life. In a family of nine, all but the youngest, Sara, try to find work to support the family, but many of the girls cannot find jobs. The domineering father, Reb, is "above" work, for he is a scholar of the Jewish Bible, the Torah, and that is his "work." Not only is he selfish, he seems heartless and lazy as his character unfolds throughout the book. What kind of man will allow his family to starve while his only concern is where he can study his beloved books? As Sara remembers, "Women had no brains for the study of God's Torah, but the could be the servants of men who studied the Torah" (Yezierska 9-10). Perhaps what is the most disturbing about Reb is his utter arrogance and belief in himself above all others. When the merchants on his block bail him out of jail, he is not surprised, or even grateful. He is arrogantly superior about it. 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 importance, and he is not afraid to show it to the rest of the household, no matter the circumstances.
Sara's father is nothing more than a mean-spirited bully who only looks out for himself. He chases away the man Bessie loves because of his selfish greed, and he pummels his daughters into submission by removing any type of self-reliance and self-esteem they have. Sara says of her sister Bessie, "But I could see her sink into herself as if all the life went out of her heart and she didn't care about anything anymore" (Yezierska 51). The father bullies all the girls into marrying men he chooses for them - men who ultimately beat the daughters down just as he did. Sara is the first to recognize his meanness and his spite. She writes, "More and more I began to see that Father, in his innocent craziness to hold up the Light of the Law to his children was a tyrant more terrible than the Tsar from Russia" (Yezierska 65). Sara is stronger than her sisters are, because she recognizes Reb's tyrannical ways, and she is the one who stands up to him, and stands up to make something better out of her life. She thinks to herself, "More and more I began to think inside myself, 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). Sara is the wiliest of the family, because she plans her escape and makes it work, and standing up to her father's wrath was probably one of the most difficult things she would ever do.
Understanding Reb and his actions is difficult today, because any man who acted as he did in today's world would not last long. His family would not stand for it, and he would not be revered for his brutality and aggression, even if he was a learned Torah scholar. His matchmaking attempts for his daughters have nothing to do with their feelings or their emotions, he is only looking out for himself, and so he saddles them in unhappy and unfulfilling marriages. His actions seem perfectly normal to him, because he is the absolute ruler of the family unit, and his word is close to the word of God's in Jewish society. However, today he seems cruel, unjust, and lazy. To truly understand his mind, you would have to travel back to Europe, and fully understand the customs of the Jews in Europe, where poverty because of piety was the highest honor, and Reb was simply living out his destiny. In America, his actions are outmoded and outdated, and he simply seems like a pathetic and domineering figure that cannot change with the times.
Ultimately, Reb's selfish cruelties drive the daughters away from the house into disastrous marriages, but like the old country, the people look up to him because he married off two girls in one day, and so he begins a matchmaking business. This is laughable; knowing the two daughters are desperately unhappy, but again, understanding Reb means understanding there is no way he can possibly admit defeat. That would admit that he made wrong decisions for his family, and he cannot face the fact that he is not absolutely perfect. In fact, the women allow his domineering and self-adsorption because that too is how they were raised in the old country. If Reb was raised to be a superior scholar, the Jewish women of the old world were raised to be totally subservient to their men, no matter what, and so, they put up with his domineering attitude because it is simply the "way things are supposed to be." The mother consistently supports this position throughout the book by nagging at her husband, and then lamenting his superiority. She says "And woe to us women who got to live in a Torah-made world that's only for men'" (Yezierska 95). Therefore, part of understanding Reb and his actions must come from understanding Jewish teaching and culture, which was reinforced in Europe for hundreds of years. The problem with Reb and his domineering attitude is that he does not see anything wrong with it, and that he is completely unable to change with the times, unlike his daughter, who is more flexible. It is simply impossible for Reb to undo centuries of social and cultural customs, and so, he hangs on to what made him successful in the old world, and cannot change to really become successful in the new. Yezierska's portrayal is all the more damning because she recognizes that she too, will always have part of the old world in her, but she is strong enough to stand up against her father for a new life for herself, and strong enough to make it work.
In the old country, Reb was a holy man who the people looked up to and admired because of his learning and his holy spirit. In the…