Sep 17, 2020
Breadgivers Review: “Coming to America” meets “Fiddler on the Roof”
As all good “Coming to America” stories seek to do, Anzia Yezierska’s Breadgivers provides an in-depth look into immigrant life. An autobiographical tale, it follows Sara Smolinsky and her family as they struggle to find a life for themselves in 1890s America. Though these struggles evolve as the story goes on, much of Breadgivers is focused around the family’s overbearing need to find economic security. As uneducated women, Sara, Bessie, and Mashah all have difficulty finding work that isn’t already taken. At the beginning of the story, we hear that Mashah and a hundred other girls waited all day in a factory’s line just for it to take two girls from the crowd before closing up. On top of this, we see personal/religious struggles hold these girls back. Their father Reb, for example, is extremely overbearing, launching constant criticisms at them and limiting what few options at upward mobility they do have astronomically further. This conflict between the father’s stubbornness and the girls’ alacrity for change is one that lasts almost the entire book.
Having read similar “Immigrant stories” like this in the past, something that really surprised me about this one, in particular, is the fact that its characters come off as organically as they do. Far too often in these sorts of books, characters in them become almost entirely defined by their circumstance. “He was poor.” “It was hard.” “He worked hard.” This is usually the level of information you’ll get about a character by the end of most of these books. Breadgivers, by contrast, perhaps in part because of its autobiographical nature, avoids this problem altogether. Take Shena, the protagonist’s mother, for example. Though a hard-working woman in her own right, we watch as Shena’s feelings and agency are repeatedly circumvented by her husband, Reb. When she wants to open part of the house to pay rent, for example, she has to beg her husband to move his books and Torah. And when she wants to let Mashah and Bessie marry, we watch as she sits demurely by and lets him alienate both potential sons-in-law with his own personal prejudices and business machinations (he literally stipulated that one of the potential husbands help him set up his business). All this being said, however, Shena is no sidekick. Throughout the book, we see her stand up to her husband, as well as hear her conflicting feelings about his many well-intentioned mistakes. We hear why she loves him, as well as why she may find that love difficult to maintain at times. While a large part of her story may have to do with the cultural expectations placed on her, more of her story has to do with forgiveness and reconciliation on behalf of her family.
Another dynamic that I really appreciated throughout this book was between the three daughters. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a sister of my own, maybe it’s because I streamed Little Women illegally a couple of weeks ago, but I really loved how unique each of the daughters was in terms of their personality and the way each of them dealt with their own abject poverty. Though we see all three of the girls searching for work at the beginning of the book, only Sara seems to be interested in a lifelong career. Deciding to leave her abusive household and become a schoolteacher, Sara spends her days working (doing laundry) and her nights studying/taking classes. The other sisters, by contrast, are much more focused on marriage. Take Bessie, for example, who is the first to bring home a potential husband. Inviting him to dinner, we see how quickly Reb alienates the man, grilling him on dowries before outright asking him to pay for the wedding and set him up in business. Obviously this is all too much for Berel, and he soon runs off with another girl instead. A few months later, Mashah does the same, bringing home an up-and-coming piano player from a wealthy family. Though, as you can expect by now, Reb’s prejudices get in the way and the man disappears. Even in their similar situations though, there are strong distinctions between Bessie and Mashah. While Bessie is the work-horse of the family, taking on the responsibilities of the entire family for most of the book, Mashah is much more “vain,” focused on her looks and even repeatedly using the family money to buy beauty products for herself.
Overall, I thought this book brought some excellent insights to the history of an otherwise-neglected group of people. While the supplementary pictures may not have done much for me personally, I thought the story itself was downright captivating. Its characters were also interesting, even if I personally felt like strangling some of them at times. Still, as a reader of the book, I must say it was an absolute pleasure to be introduced to such well-meaning, well-rounded characters (and Mrs. Feinstein). I thought that both Bessie and Mashah were unique enough in personality to be compelling characters, and I liked the dichotomy in the fact that only Sara sought to be financially independent. I also liked the fact that the family in this story doesn’t stay together for the entirety of it. In most of these stories, the narrative is always pressed on us that these people were only able to survive through the strong family connections they possessed. As we see with the Smolinsky family, however, this isn’t always the case. After an exceptionally bad falling-out between the now-widowed father and the rest of the girls, they spend quite a long time apart. Only in the end do they come together, and even then, it’s a very tenuous reunion at best.
I thought the dynamic between the three girls was interesting as well. I enjoyed reading the parts with Mashah in it. Although she did come off as very vain and self-absorbed, I also thought her character was fairly smart, she was mainly looking out for herself. She managed to get free meals from men, keeping herself full, and also kept her things very tidy. I thought her character was interesting because I think a lot of her characteristics are similar to the fathers, obviously, she is not as harsh, but she does look out for herself over the other members of the family.
In paragraph 2, you say that the characters, being as organic in the autobiography, avoids the problems rooted at hand of their immigration, but I disagree. Poverty, family turmoil over the different assimilation developments, finding a new balance between culture and the American life, hardships in finding available work in a low-skill immigrant, over-saturated area, and break-ups with in the family due to rejection of the extent of Americanization some pursue. None of this are avoided but any means. Instead this autobiography shows how the characters persisted to live their life in the conditions pressed by the means, and with these means in mind toward their development. These themes guided how the girls lived while perhaps in other readings, we see immigrants forced to live up to these means, but in reality, life goes on like in this story.
You know, you bring up a really unique point about Shena not always being a side kick as later in the story we see her advocating for her own beliefs rather than passively watching her husband. And you include how a huge part of her relationship with his husband before was highly influenced by cultural pressures. If we look at the timeline of Shena adjusting to America, do you think the American culture, and her emotional and general assimilation to it is what empowered her to stand up for herself, advocating for a different idea than that of her husband’s? I don’t recall this being as strong of a consistency in the beginning of the book as it became a pattern at the end of the book. As plenty of the daughters adopted American ideas of independence and happiness towards marriage, some rejecting or ditching marriages, we can maybe also see Shena adopting these ideas, but simply reformatting, or trying to restructure the dynamics in her marriage with Reb.