Anzia Yezierska

In America, a female sweatshop worker from a Polish shtetl could become a renowned writer and Hollywood commodity.

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Hungry Hearts brought Yezierska surprising acclaim, along with an opportunity to work in Hollywood. Samuel Goldwyn bought the film rights to Hungry Hearts, eventually turning it into a well-received movie.  Yezierska was briefly hired as a screenwriter, and offered a $100,000 contract by Goldwyn before leaving California and returning to fiction.  Her first novel, Salome of the Tenements (1923), took another stab at Yezierska’s favored theme of doomed love between a working-class girl and her well-heeled suitor.  It, too, was adapted into a film.

Her masterpiece, Bread Givers (1925), draws on her family history to deftly sketch the clammy sense of entrapment experienced by her hungry--in all senses of the term--protagonist Sara Smolinsky.  Sara has three sisters, whereas Yezierska’s family was tutored in American ways by her elder brother Meyer, but the familiar Torah-studying father and the overburdened mother are present once more.  Sara, desperate to escape not just the grim Lower East Side but the even grimmer constraints of her family, is indefatigably eager to learn, to grow, and to seize her independence.  Bread Givers is propelled by Yezierska’s innate understanding of the rhythms of immigrant speech. “What for will you need old feather beds?” Sara’s father says of their future new home while the family is still in Russia.  “Don’t you know it’s always summer in America?  And in the new golden country, where milk and honey flow free in the streets, you’ll have new golden dishes to cook in, and not weigh yourself down with your old pots and pans.”

Art in Deseperation

Yezierska’s America is no land of milk and honey, but a brutal place of privation and hand-to-hand combat.  Customers plead with pushcart sellers for an extra herring with which to feed their families, tenants beg landlords for an extra day to pay their rent, and fathers hector daughters to keep to the traditional ways, and sacrifice themselves, day by day, to the unending hunger of their parents and siblings.  Sara is sent out to work, just as Yezierska had been, and her brute energy is immediately obvious to all: “Give only a look on that little nothing!  Only skin and bones—but such quick hands!  It burns in her an engine!”  

Sara is desperate for those very things in limited supply on the Lower East Side: quiet, cleanliness, and privacy. Bread Givers is a furious blast directed at all those who sought to keep Yezierska silent—not just her family, but the world of the bread givers by anzia yezierskaimmigrant Jews, and America at large.  Sara’s burden is not just that of the immigrant, but that of the Jewish woman, doomed to frustration by the second-class status imposed by religion.  The book is ultimately a showdown between two fanatically stubborn individuals, and part of the lingering bittersweetness of Bread Givers is that even in winning, Sara never truly triumphs over her father.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.