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.