Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
Anzia Yezierska ‘s most frequently read book, Bread Givers–unlike her earlier novel Salome of the Tenements–renders the story of poor Jewish immigrants in an idiom based on Yiddish.
Yezierska wasn’t the first to write in the linguistic amalgam that has come to be known as “Yinglish”: dialect stories were common in late19th-century America, and starting in 1914 Harry Hershfield’s comic strip character Abie Kabibble spoke Yiddish-inflected English to millions of newspaper readers. But Yezierska achieves remarkable results by eschewing phonetic spellings and relying instead on unusual syntax to evoke the native language of her characters.
By way of introduction, the novel’s narrator, Sara Smolinsky, remarks, “From always it was heavy on my heart the worries for the house,” which is a near-literal translation of what one might say in Yiddish.
All Families are Dysfunctional
The novel relates the strong-willed narrator’s endeavor to escape the indignities of poverty and the tyranny of her father, whose cruelty and smallmindedness, Yezierska suggests, typify unenlightened, patriarchal, Old World Judaism, no matter how pious it pretends to be.
As vicious a character as can be found in American Jewish literature, Mr. Smolinsky forces his family to provide for him so that he can study Torah, and he refuses to work even if that means his daughters must live in brutal conditions (by the family’s unfortunate standards, the frivolous Masha, Sara’s sister, is indulging in extreme luxury when she buys herself a toothbrush and some soap for 30 cents). When he tries to engage in business, he fails miserably, conned by scheming Americans.
Sara, nicknamed “Blood-and-Iron” for her stubbornness, manages to avoid the awful fates of her sisters and to educate herself. She attends college, wins a speech contest, becomes a public-school teacher, and falls in love with a man who combines the best of Europe and America.
Though her father has done nothing to help her, she even nobly takes him into her home when he has no one else to care for him; ultimately, though she believes in education and assimilation, she recognizes that the past cannot be shrugged off. “It wasn’t just my father,” she realizes finally, “but the generations who made my father whose weight was still upon me.” Less florid than Salome, Bread Givers nonetheless strays into embarrassingly purple passages, but overall it remains a gripping story with many virtuoso flourishes of Yinglish phrasing.
Yezierksa’s other novels include Arrogant Beggar (1927) and All I Could Never Be (1932), and her short fiction is collected in How I Found America (1991). For other proto-feminist voices, see Mary Antin’s famous memoir The Promised Land (1912), and the poetry of Emma Lazarus; Lazarus’s compelling life story is told expertly in Esther Schor’s biography, Emma Lazarus (2006).