September 18

In the book Bread Givers we were presented with a personification of the notes we took in class. It put into perspective for me the potency of events and societal elements we discussed in class in the every day lives of Eastern European Jewish immigrants into America. The three themes which stuck out to me the most was the emphasis on education but only for men, the conflicting ideologies of conservative Jewish culture and comparatively liberal American culture, and the use of female child labor to support households. While I understood these phenomena had a significant impact on the experiences of this group of immigrants, it was grounding to witness the effects from a firsthand perspective.

There was a major conflict in the family which stemmed from the conservative Jewish culture’s stance on education. It was upheld in this orthodox practice that only men should pursue education, primarily in the Torah, because women’s brains were not capable of processing complex ideas. The role of the woman was to serve and listen to the knowledgeable male figure responsible for her. This became a major issue for Sara which did so much as alienate her from her family members. Both her sisters and her mothers urged her to give up her studies and dreams of becoming a school teacher and instead settle down with a husband. Her father went as far as to disown her. They did not want her to be the subject of social stigmatization tied to being an “old maid,” which at the time referred to a woman in her mid-twenties or older and still unmarried. However, Sara dared to challenge the social norms of her community and continued her studies regardless. She slowly became less concerned with what her community expected of her and more concerned with what she desired for herself. Which brings us to our next flashpoint of conflict: Reformed Judaism vs. Orthodox Judaism.

This cultural conflict is best demonstrated through an analysis of the behavior of Reb, Sara’s father. Reb often criticized the Jews in America for what he considered to be losing faith and straying away from God. He insulted Masha’s first love interest for playing piano on the Sabbath and impugned Bessie’s first love interest for not observing all times of prayer. From his youth back in Russia he specifically sought to marry into a family where he could comfortably study the Torah instead of work, a habit encourage by his father-in-law. He especially levied these religious criticisms to his daughters and women in general. Whenever his wife or daughters would contest him or point out contradictions in his thinking, he would quickly shut them down with complaints that they had become too Americanized and outwardly longed for the ‘docile and obedient women of home.’

The last phenomenon of interest I will address is the dependence on specifically female child labor to support households. Men in this society were upheld as the wise and religiously enlightened ones. As such, men and boys were encouraged to dedicate most if not all of their time studying the Torah. Women on the other hand were expected to fulfill all supporting roles necessary to free their responsible male figure to achieve this goal. This meant that wives and daughters would work in their husband or father’s business or work as an employee elsewhere. Sara’s family situation demonstrated the most extreme case of this phenomenon, in which the responsible male figure did not work at all and instead relied on the support of his wife and children. What I found most interesting about this dynamic was that Reb continued to assert himself as the head of the household despite him being a dependent. Furthermore, this imbalanced dynamic was not unique to Sara’s family. Throughout the book men asserted an inherent dominance over women while simultaneously admitting to their dependence on their wives and daughters to live well. Reb was desperately reluctant to allow Bessie to marry based solely on the fact that she was his main source of income. Just one month after his wife died, Zolem was frantic to find a new wife as his household quickly fell apart without a female presence. And Masha’s husband went out of his way to assert independence from his wife by not eating her dinner, but only served to prove his dependence further by demonstrating his only alternative was to eat at expensive restaurants. It was frustrating to see the men not acknowledge this stark contradiction of roles, and I can only imagine having to be the one to experience it firsthand.

5 thoughts on “September 18

  1. The gender roles and dynamics in Bread Givers were definitely interesting. I was also struck by just how much Reb depended on the women in the family, all while claiming to be head of the household and taking the best for himself. I found this dynamic incredibly frustrating, especially when the mother and sisters were struggling to make rent and get food on the table. The education aspect you mentioned was also interesting, as only men were encouraged to receive an education. It was disheartening to me that even Sara’s sisters discouraged her from education and instead encouraged her to get married.

    1. Yes! This is one of the strongest analyses I have passed through yet. We actually reflected on some similar points as well. I definitely thing your key element about Reb being so stuck in his historical, cultural ways back in Europe and maintaining them in America is really one of the foundational cultural struggles in the book. You gave context all the way back to his young adult decision of devoting his life to religion rather than work in Russia, showing how stuck and accustomed to his ways he is. In addition, your connection of female dependence to financially uphold the household, stemming from the construction of gender roles is so important and ultimately, it was these two elements together that led do his demise and continued poverty in America. When he actually took a step back from his dedication to the Torah and overrode his wife’s initiative on the grocery store, his lack of secular knowledge, due to always relying on women enabled him to be taken advantage of.

  2. I love this analysis of the book and is one of the more in-depth ones I’ve read so far. The gender roles in Bread Givers bring in an interesting conversation of how much women were affected by the roles that were created and how they may not work as well in real life. What I find unique about this situation is how men are blatantly permitted to not provide for their family and still assert their position while women have to do the hardest work and receive little in return. It is frustrating seeing how these values ultimately hurt the lives that the women in the story live. I also find the theme of balancing conservative and liberal values since it seems to be a concept that many families of immigrants face.

  3. The clash of religious ideas is one of the central themes of this book. How the fictitious character of Sara deals with that sheds light on real immigrant experience in that time. Where ever it is the conflict of orthodoxy Judaism or reformed Judaism those religious divides are part of the great struggle of coming to a new land.

  4. The part where women could not obtain an education and only the men could really get an education got to me. Her father was the only one in the family allowed to have an education. The women, on the other hand, the purpose was to take care of the house, while the men sit back and do nothing. It surprised me, that throughout the book, Sara does not give up her dream of becoming a school teacher, works hard, and achieves her dreams of becoming a teacher by going to college.

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