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For many of the Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the experience of life in a new country was often one of grinding poverty, social exclusion, and the desperate struggle to survive. America was a land of new beginnings, but those beginnings offered no guarantee of a satisfactory conclusion.
Anzia Yezierska was one of the millions to leave Eastern Europe in search of a better life, departing Poland at the age of 15 along with her family and coming to New York in 1898. Yezierska’s family settled on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where her still-pious father resumed his daily Torah study, and her mother worked to earn money for the family. While her brothers were encouraged in their educations, Anzia was sent to work in a series of sweatshops. Yezierska eventually wangled her way into an undergraduate program at Columbia University without a high-school diploma, pursuing her education against the express wishes of her family. At school, she studied literature and philosophy, and went on to work as a teacher for a number of years. After a brief, failed marriage, Yezierska met the noted scholar John Dewey, with whom she was romantically involved for a number of years, and his encouragement pushed her to try her hand as a writer.
She Begins to Write
Hungry Hearts (1920), Yezierska’s first book, was a collection of stories about people familiar from her own Lower East Side upbringing. Stories like “Hunger” and “The Free Vacation House” summon the indelible, Yiddish-inflected voices of Yezierska’s childhood. “You piece of earth!” a man shouts at his lovelorn niece Shenah Pessah. “Worms should eat you! How long does it take you to wash up the stairs?” Shenah Pessah is the protagonist of three stories in Hungry Hearts, and her arc—from first love to despair, from brutal work to a glimpse of America’s promise—echoes Yezierska’s own, as well as that of future protagonists like Bread Givers’ Sara Smolinsky. “Can I help it what’s in my heart?” pleads Shenah Pessah. “It always longs in me for the higher.”
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