Week 4 – Bread Givers

This book is about a young girl named Sara Smolinsky who is a part of a Jewish family who live in the Lower East Side of New York Ciry. Her, along with her two sisters and mother have to work to support her father, who forsakes all else but his religion, leaving his family to struggle. I was interested to see how their family dynamic worked; young, unmarried women were usually the bread winners of the family who worked. I think this book is titled Bread Givers because during the story, Sara realized that she had been giving her time and money to her father that didn’t want to work. Her and her sisters submitted to their father time and time again before understanding that there was more to life than what they had when they were growing up. Her father being an Orthodox rabbi was working and left Sara, Bessie, and Mashah and their mother do work. After Sara’s mother passed away, her father quickly remarried a woman who became frustrated that he didn’t work (Sara later found him on the street selling gum at the end of the story). From rummaging the streets for coal to selling herring, their jobs weren’t something that were desired, but were all they could get (they talked about a shirtwaist factory job at one point… how big was this specific industry?). I almost felt like Sara’s father didn’t want to change from what his life was like in Poland, saying, “did we ever know of such nonsense in the old country?”, when referencing marriage for his daughters. Everything about Reb seemed like he wanted to stay on the traditional, straight path, but his daughters who were true Jewish-American girls wanted to walk a little bit differently. I feel like this book is an accurate representation of life as an immigrant during this time because of its focus on family, hardship, and triumph when Sara “makes it”.

Overall, I feel like this book sides along with this idea that has been assigned to immigrants throughout American history that if they work hard enough, they can get to where they want to be. Sara even saying, “years ago, I vowed to myself that if I could ever tear myself out of the dirt I’d have only clean emptiness.” (277) I feel like oftentimes, that goal of “making it” is unattainable because of a language barrier, discrimination, etc., but I believe that Sara broke the mold of who her father (and the greater society) had told her she could be. For Sara to have avoided a loveless marriage, to have disobeyed her father, get an education, work a job, get her own apartment, and become a teacher took great perseverance on her part. (In class as you were talking about the many Jewish figures in the entertainment industry, I often imagine some of their stories starting like Sara’s (and Anzia’s).)

2 thoughts on “Week 4 – Bread Givers

  1. I agree with your view regarding the title of Bread Givers. Bessie, Fania, Sara, and occasionally even Mashah gave up the money they worked hard for while their father, the supposed provider, only devoted himself to religious practice. Essentially, he was too lazy to work. The title Bread Givers indicates the sever poverty the Smolinksy family would live in if not for the young providers. Secondly, I think that Sara did break the mold because she had will and determination that Bessie, Fania, and Mashah lacked.

  2. I think Sara sought the American Dream, and to some extent, achieved it. Through education, she found social mobility. I agree that the book perpetuated the idea that hard work alone can get someone far in life, beginning as early as when Sara was ten and sold herring with “burning fire” (21) due to her family’s desperation. I also admired Sara’s perseverance, independence, and determination, as she followed her own path and overcame the expectations for her, avoiding the fate of her mother and her sisters. Sara easily could have given in at any point, even while at school, starving and an outcast, but endured and fought to change her life.

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