Although Bread Givers had somewhat of a slow start, there were many moments within Yezierska’s book that I found myself relating to. Similarly, there are lots of moments I found myself struggling to relate to.
Because part of my family also originates from Eastern Europe (Ukraine) and the family consisted of my great great-grandfather, my great great-grandmother and their four daughters. They settled in Philadelphia rather than New York City, but they too were Orthodox Jews like the Smolinsky’s. This is where the similarities end. My great great-grandfather migrated to the U.S. in 1916 and started an upholstery business, from which I assumed he saved enough to 1) live comfortably himself and 2) pay for the girls’ passage and expenses when they arrived. Although they were Orthodox when it came to their religion like the Smolinsky’s, my great great-grandfather never would have expected his family to prop him up like Reb Smolinsky did. Reb Smolinsky is the epitome of selfishness, and honestly makes Judaism look really horrible, but being aware of Yezierska’s past (as described in the Foreword) helps to understand why her picture of the faith and culture is so negative. The Judaism I know has some misogynistic qualities, probably like most other organized religions and definitely like the other Abrahamic religions, but not to this extreme.
For me, the hardest parts of Bread Givers to read was whenever Sara was describing the physical toll their poverty had on their bodies. Poverty can be stereotyped, and exaggerated, but seeing it in physical form the way it appeared on Mashah and Bessie after their respective marriages completely broke my heart, especially after they had found men they loved and wanted to marry by choice. I’m not sure whether my great great-grandparents’ marriage was arranged (I assume it was since it occurred in Ukraine) but my great-grandmother’s (the second generation) was not.
I also found myself relating to Sara when she left home – not because I live under a tyrannical father, but I understand the need to “be a person” so well. I loved how independent her character was, even when it pushed away a possible suitor, a business partner of Fania’s husband. Sara’s experience in college however was mostly hard to relate to – it makes me wonder what college Yezierska based this section on, and whether her difficult experience was because she was an immigrant or simply because she was poor. I wish Yezierska had included more detail when explaining how she appeared to others, like whether she had an accent or whether she was religious for example, but maybe these are just details she assumed the reader knew.
The conclusion of the book was just as bittersweet as the rest had been, so there was no surprise there, but even with their mother’s death and their father’s poverty and selfish new wife, I found it hard to continue being sad when Sara became a teacher. I was so proud, because she had worked so hard, and finally something she had worked for wasn’t ripped out of her hands, like friendships or the grocery store her family bought. Her success was real, and her apartment was real, and Hugo was real, and although the end of the story was considerably depressing, I was so glad that Sara got what she wanted in the end. She finally became a person, her own person!