The fast approach of Valentine’s Day has colored my academic lenses. Though some contend this is a holiday created by greeting card companies, I love the grocery store aisles of red and pink. I could (and have) spent more time than I care to admit reading card after card in store after store, all in search of that perfect message. However, I believe in the power of greeting cards to convey my message when I cannot be there to share my love with family and friends in person.
And so as I read Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers this weekend, I could not help but consider love as one of the most important themes of the book. Scholars like Alice Kessler-Harris have noted the emotional appeal of the story of Sara Smolinsky, an immigrant girl navigating the challenges of family life, societal expectations, and Americanization as she grows up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1920s. What makes Yezierska’s story so vivid and compelling is the complex exploration of several types of love: love of oneself, filial love, and the presence (and absence) of romantic love. 
Told through the first person perspective of the protagonist, Sara Smolinsky embodies love of oneself throughout the story. Driven to “become a person,” she defies familial and societal expectations of a young immigrant woman to live at home and support her family. Following a decisive fight with her demanding father, Smolinsky strikes out on her own in a quest to educate and Americanize herself.
Shortly thereafter, Sara finds herself eating alone. After growing up in a crowded tenement apartment, she relishes the experience: “I, alone with myself, was enjoying myself for the first time as with grandest company.” As she discovers her own self-love, Smolinsky chooses to rent a private room with her own door that embodies this newfound freedom. She prefers the time alone focused on her education to the company of others.
However, filial love offers a direct contrast to Smolinsky’s value of self-love. Through Sara’s relationship with her father and mother, as well as the relationships of her sisters to the family, Yezierska’s story sheds light on the expectations of an immigrant family in the 1920s. Reb Smolinsky, the father, expects his daughters to earn wages to support the family so he can focus on Talmudic scholarship. When one daughter, Mashah, spends part of her wages on individual possessions like pink paper flowers or a personal toothbrush, she is called “Empty Head” for not recognizing the family’s collective lack of resources.
This conflict between self and filial love becomes especially poignant when Smolinsky’s father remarries shortly after her mother’s death and her new stepmother expects Sara and the married sisters to offer financial support to the couple. Still burning at the recent loss of their mother, they refuse these demands until one day Sara knocks into an old man selling gum on the street and realizes it is her father. She struggles to reconcile the blackmail of her stepmother with the need to care for her father, eventually achieving greater self-love by fulfilling her filial obligations.
Finally, Bread Givers presents an important historical view of romantic love. “‘I’ll even get married some day,’” Sara tells her mother, “‘But to marry myself to a man that’s a person, I must first make myself for a person.’”  In fact, of the four Smolinsky girls, Sara is the only character strong enough to fight her father for the opportunity to marry for love.
Though the three older Smolinsky girls fall in love on their own, their father rejects each suitor as a possible son-in-law. Instead, he chooses to employ traditional matchmaking to marry off his daughters. Defeated by the rejection of their lovers and overwhelmed by filial piety, the three sisters enter into unhappy marriages absent of romantic love.
In the end, Sara manages to succeed where her sisters fail: by the end of the story her devotion to the love of herself leads her to both find romantic love and reconcile with her harsh father. As an immigrant, she becomes the most successfully assimilated member of her family when all three types of love harmonize.
 Alice Kessler-Harris, foreword to Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska (New York: Persea Books, 2003), viii.
 Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers, (New York: Persea Books, 2003), 157.
 Ibid., 172.