Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska follows Sara Smolinsky, a Jewish American immigrant from Poland, as she grapples with her culture and forging a life for herself in America. Sara’s father follows the old tradition of men studying the Torah and receiving the best from the women in their family, who are expected to provide for the men. Sara’s family consisted of her parents, three sisters, and herself. Her mother and sisters would work hard to keep food on the table, especially Bessie, except for Mashah, who spent her money on items to maintain her appearance and minor luxuries, like having her own toothbrush. Each of Sara’s sisters had men fall for them and propose, only to be rejected by their father. Bessie fell for Berel Bernstein, who made good money and was having success; however, her father rejected him because Bessie’s wages were too important for the family. Later, he forced Bessie to marry an older, widowed fish-peddler with many children. Mashah fell for Jacob Novak, a piano player from a wealthy family; however, her father rejected him because he played piano on Sabbath. Later, he forced her to marry a diamond dealer, Moe Mirsky—except that Moe actually just worked in a jewelry store, before promptly getting fired and becoming a shoe clerk. Fania fell for Morris Lipkin, a poet; however, her father rejected him because he was too poor. Instead, he forced Fania to marry Abe Shmukler, a man in the cloaks-and-suits business, who ended up being a gambler. It was incredibly frustrating to read about the father refusing to let his daughters marry who they liked and instead pawning them off to much worse candidates, never admitting he was wrong. It was also hard to read about the daughters refusing to stand up against their father and giving in, even though I know they felt familial ties and grew up with a certain cultural background. Her father then purchased a store, only to realize it had been a scam. Still, he does not take accountability and even ruins sales that Sara and her mother desperately try to make. Sara runs away to stay with her sisters, but after seeing the sad state of their lives and marriages, she decides to leave and make a different life for herself.
In the second part of the book, Between Two Worlds, Sara decides to become a schoolteacher, a path out of poverty. Her mother visits her, but insists that Sara get married, discouraging her from becoming a schoolteacher; still, Sara persists, following her ambition. Her sisters also visit her, and express that they do not understand why she wants an education so badly. She struggles in school, working simultaneously and experiencing sexism, such as not being given a fair portion at the cafeteria, as well as socially, an outcast among students. Sara briefly considers marriage when Max Goldstein, a business partner of Fania’s husband, expresses interest in her, but he is obsessed with get-rich-quick schemes and does not approve of education as a path to success. Furthermore, after she rejected him, she finds out her father had sent him to her, and her father becomes enraged. She views her father as the Old World and herself as the New World, and rejects marriage and her family, determined to continue her education alone. She succeeds in college and even wins an essay contest.
In the third and final section of the book, The New World, Sara basks in her life without poverty and visits home in time to briefly nurse her mother before she passed. To the outrage of her and her sisters, their father remarried almost immediately, to a woman who refused to live without luxuries and take care of their father, as their mother had. Sara settles for giving money to her so that her father can live well, although the woman even tries to get Sara fired. At school, Sara falls for Hugo Seelig, the principal who had a similar love for educating children and, it turns out, is from a close village in Poland to Sara’s. Sara takes Hugo to meet her father, who approves of him, and invites her father to live with her, viewing him with pity as he is lonely and so stuck to the old ways of life. I did really enjoy this book, and I admired Sara’s drive, but I found it frustrating to read about her father’s antics and treatment of the family, and it was difficult for me to see Sara decide to look after her father and take him in, even after all that he did to her and their family. It was interesting to read about Sara’s experience as an American immigrant stuck between two worlds and following her ambition and desires through life.