In America, a female sweatshop worker from a Polish shtetl could become a renowned writer and Hollywood commodity.
“The prayers of his daughters didn’t count because God didn’t listen to women. Heaven and the next world were only for men,” the book says of Reb Smolinsky’s—and by extension his brand of Judaism’s—views on women. “Only if they cooked for the men, and washed for the men, and didn’t nag or curse the men out of their homes; only if they let the men study the Torah in peace, then, maybe, they could push themselves into Heaven with the men, to wait on them there.”
Yezierska went on writing after Bread Givers, but to a diminishing audience. After All I Could Never Be, in 1932, Yezierska would not publish another book until her autobiography, Red Ribbon on a White Horse, in 1950. Her work largely overlooked by a later generation of readers, seminal books like Bread Givers and Hungry Hearts would be rediscovered by American letters in the 1960s, primed by the re-emergence of Henry Roth’s thematically similar Lower East Side novel Call It Sleep and Yezierska’s pre-feminist consciousness of women’s struggles. In finding her work once again, readers have been able to glimpse the remains of a lost world, carefully and lovingly preserved by a writer who both experienced it, and escaped it.
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