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.