Two Worlds, Two Identities: Tradition and Womanhood in Bread Givers

At first glance, I assumed that this week’s topic (immigrant communities) would be primarily a study of class, race, and religion. Therefore, it surprised me that upon completing Bread Givers, my strongest reaction came from a gendered perspective. Because of my perception of Judaism as fairly liberal in regard to women’s issues, I had not considered the situation of the Smolinsky women and others like them. Not only did they face the discrimination of a mainstream America wary of the influx of immigration, but they also contended with a still-powerful traditional mindset that dictated a very specific place for women within the family structure. The three sections into which Bread Givers is divided represent Sara’s rebellion against outside perceptions of her as both an immigrant and a female, and her ultimate acceptance of these circumstances—though only on her own unconventional terms.

Throughout the first section of Bread Givers, I found myself consistently frustrated that Sara, her sisters, and her mother must defer dreams and endure serious misery for a father and husband that is by turns tyrannical and quixotic simply because as a man he was the source of authority. After witnessing the sad fates of the older women in her family, Sara alone turns her back on Old World traditions and mindsets in search of a New World identity. “I’m going to live my own life. Nobody can stop me,” she cries at her father in anger. “I’m not from the old country. I’m American!” [1] Her outburst rejects the notion of wifely submission still embraced by more devout newcomers. Instead, Sara represents the more fully assimilated immigrants, particularly women, who fully embrace the rhetoric and opportunities of American life.

However, once Sara begins to pursue her dream of higher education and skilled employment, her status as an immigrant prevents her from fully embracing the American dream. In the second section, dominated by her educational endeavors, she finds that the struggles and poverty she endured growing up on the Lower East Side sets her apart from her native-born, more privileged classmates, decrying them as “children who never had had to live yet.” [2] While struggling to put herself through night school, she finds herself yearning for her family kitchen, where “[e]ven Father’s preaching and Mother’s worrying made mealtimes something higher than mere eating and filling the stomach.”[3] Hard as she tries to defy them, Sara comes to the unexpected realization that she can never fully escape the world and tradition in which she was raised.

The final section sees an accomplished Sara returning home to make sense of the world she fled years earlier. Within a short time, her mother dies and her father remarries a shallow, demanding woman. The memory of her loving mother leaves Sara feeling self-centered. “How much bigger was Mother’s goodness than my burning ambition to rise in the world,” [4] she berates herself. Her sister Fania comments that her devotion to her schoolbooks is “worse than Father with his Holy Torah.” [5] Though she has achieved all she set out to do, attaining a formal education, a meaningful job, and the love of a man who admires her for who she is, the pull of tradition proves a powerful force. Sara’s acceptance of responsibility for her father represents the ultimate fusion of her female and immigrant identities. In living simultaneously with a man who shares her modern, egalitarian ideals and her devout, traditional father, Sara is ever aware of the influence both old country values and modern American sensibilities have had upon her life.

Over the course of its three parts, Bread Givers chronicles Sara’s journey to reconcile her belief in gender equality with her immigrant experiences and identity. It witnesses her struggles to reject the fate of the other women of her family; however, in seeking independence and parity through education, she finds that the Jewish heritage and immigrant community in which she was raised cannot be fully left behind. While she does not abandon her ideals and beliefs, Sara must—and does—find a workable balance between the traditions and values that defined her parents’ household and the modern, egalitarian mindset that is at the basis of her and Hugo’s relationship.

[1] Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (New York: Persea Books, 1975), 138.

[2] Ibid., 223.

[3] Ibid., 173.

[4] Ibid., 171.

[5] Ibid., 178.

2 thoughts on “Two Worlds, Two Identities: Tradition and Womanhood in Bread Givers

  1. I like that you point out the family dynamics at play throughout the novel. Family loyalty in contrast to the conflicts created by the individual’s pursuit of self identity remains a universal theme even today in popular culture. Sara’s struggles to carve out her own identity and defy the traditions of her family are almost fortified by her loyalty to her family members. She seems almost out to avenge the wrongs her father caused her sisters and she basically achieves her father’s unrealized goal of living the life of an educated man. In the end, when she is needed most, Sarah accepts her familial responsibility of caring for her father instead of sending him to The Old Men’s Home. This book resonates because of this and the other universal themes you mention throughout your posting.

  2. I agree, Sara does find a balance by the end of the novel. It is only when she has attained her independence living in a bright, open apartment with a livable salary that she is ready to accept Hugo as a potential partner. What I find particularly interesting is the contrast between the balance Sara seems to find and the balance Anzia never achieved. Though the book mirrors many aspects of the authors life, the uplifting reconciliation of Sara’s past with her present did not come to Anzia in the same way. It makes me wonder if Anzia regretted her separation from her family – or understood the appeal of a happy ending for her audience.

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