A Person is 60 Percent Water, the Rest is Blood and Iron (and Education)

All Sara Smolinsky wanted was to be a person.

For our Russian Jew immigrant protagonist of Bread Givers, it would take much of her formative years to figure out how to do that.  She had to become independent of the ways of her family, and the Old World, where “only men were people.” [1]  For Sara, she finds that her only path to achieving the independence necessary to being someone in America is through education.

The most striking issue with Sara was her insistence that, for most of her story, she was not yet a person at all. Sara was a product of both her Jewish upbringing and also self-made, materialistic ideals of America. She was female and she was Jewish, and was therefore supposed to exist for the men in her life: first her father and then, one day, a husband.  Stepping outside that sacred relationship was an audacious sin, and her father let her know it while cursing her out for her ungodly ambitions. “You’re not a person at all. What do you make from yourself? Why do you hold yourself better than the whole world?” [2]

Sara’s “blood and iron” spirit and determination led her to believe that there was something more for her in life than to serve her father and a future husband.  She was also poor and uneducated, and those were problems for Sara, the American. She struggled through her youth to figure out what would make her that real person who she wanted to be. Earning her own money selling herring or working at the laundry gave her the means to buy material things. Money wasn’t the key ingredient of being a person, though. Sara saw this in the way her sister Fania’s marriage to a rich man she had not chosen had crushed her.

Nu, independence was Sara’s ticket. “I want to learn something. I want to some day make myself for a person and come among people. But how can I do it if I live in this hell house of Father’s preaching and Mother’s complaining?”[3]

Living on her own, paying for her own night school, and then moving away to college to become a teacher was her calling. With her achievements, money would come. It was not until she graduated college when she could finally say “Sara Smolinksy, from Hester Street, changed into a person!”[4]

Though she had many misgivings toward the men who would enter her life, Sara did not reject the idea of marriage. She did not wish to be fully independent from men forever. She had told her mother “I’ll even get married some day. But to marry myself to a man that’s a person, I must first make myself for a person.”[5] To find a good match, Sara needed to become more than wife to the man.

Her desire to be seen as her own person was evident with her dismissal of Max Goldstein. Surely he was a person in America with his wealth and influence. His disrespect of her quest for an education, however, was a deal breaker for Sara. It was not until she had truly made herself a person, in returning to New York as a teacher that Sara could be appreciated by a potential husband. Hugo Seelig comes along at the end of her story, and with his similar background to Sara’s and his similar ambitions can understand and respect the person she had become.

Notes:

[1] Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (New York: Persea Books, 1975), 205.

[2] Ibid, 206.

[3] Ibid, 66.

[4] Ibid, 237.

[5] Ibid, 172.

5 thoughts on “A Person is 60 Percent Water, the Rest is Blood and Iron (and Education)

  1. Educational opportunities abounded during this time in the Lower East Side. Four blocks north on Rivington St. was a branch of the NYPL, two blocks southeast was the Educational Alliance, and a block further the Henry St. Settlement. However, as seen in the book, opportunities to take advantage of these educational resources was limited by work and familial obligations.

  2. I like that Sara’s story was one of becoming a person. As I read the book, I noticed that a lot of her arguments were parallel to those of women’s rights in the 1910s and 20s. But, as you pointed out in your post, her goal was to become a “person” through academic achievement.
    One question I wonder about is whether Sara saw marriage as a dependency on men. Men in the novel certainly admitted that they needed wives as their “burden bearers,” but Sara didn’t want an arranged marriage, which meant, to me, that she didn’t believe marriage was for convenience and dependency but for love and perhaps another show of her freedom as a person.

  3. I really enjoyed Sara’s journey of self discovery. At first she believes that it is purely and education that will make her a person. However as she arrives at college she continues to feel her separateness. She realizes as she continues her education that it was the process of overcoming her past in the quest for an education that made her a person, not only the education itself. The journey not only the destination.

  4. While I definitely found myself rooting for Sara to stand up to her father, to leave NYC and attend college, and to realize her dream of becoming a teacher, I thought that the reconciliation of her identity with her heritage was weak. She accomplishes so much, in her own way, only to bow down to her father with 15 pages left? Sara realized that “the shadow of the burden was always following me” and she “almost hated him again as I felt his tyranny.” But rather than continue to assert herself against him, she chooses to support him and justify his actions. Granted, he would have died without her support – but this is a work of fiction, he didn’t need to die. Is family stronger than personal identity?

    Hugo, in contrast, does complement Sara’s ideal of personhood rather than detract from it – he both understands and respects her heritage and the trials she had to overcome to become a schoolteacher.

  5. I don’t think Sara will ever break free of her culture. This man she finds in the end who is supposed to “respect the person she has become” puts her father before her. Sara realized at the very end that she was giving in to the traditions of male dominance, despite all of her efforts to become independent. The “weight that was still upon ” her is an acknowledgement that she is compromising and accepting the culture that takes self determination from her. There seems to be a theme that runs through the book which tells us if it seems to good to be true… One has to wonder, as she finally has achieved her goals of education and Independence, and a man who she believes to be a kindred spirit, if these too are simply borrowed diamonds.

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