I Struggle, Therefore I Am

“It says in the Torah, only through a man has a woman an existence”. [1] Groan. Throughout Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, Reb Smolinsky makes multiple, groan-inducing comments about women needing men to become more than what they are. Such remarks likely elicit groans in nearly every reader. Yet, regarding the novel’s protagonist Sara Smolinsky, some of these comments hold truth.

Nope, I’m not a male chauvinist.

Rather, I’m considering Sara’s existence in a more abstract sense: Sara’s experiences with men enable her to grow into a person, and therefore “exist.” To be a person, to exist, one must have the ability to be autonomous and independent and to grow. In the male-dominated society transplanted from the Old World, “only men were people.” [2] In the New World, however, women could also ascend to personhood. Sara therefore embraces American culture and its opportunities for personal growth. The challenges of Old World society, embodied in her father, drive Sara to identify what she does not want from life and who she hopes to become. Similarly, Sara views romantic relationships and rejection as learning experiences that facilitate growth towards personhood. My argument should not diminish the importance of Sara’s mother and sisters and other women in shaping Sara’s person. But, most of Sara’s personal growth comes about through conflicts and experiences with men. Primarily through men does Sara achieve an existence.

In facing her father, Sara realizes the depth of her desire to leave behind the gendered constraints of the Old World. Seeing her father drive her sisters into miserable marriages underscores Sara’s drive to make her own autonomous life:  “In America, women don’t need men to boss them…. I’ve got to live my own life. Thank God, I’m not living in olden times. Thank God I’m living in America! You made the lives of the other children! I’m going to make my own life!” [3] In addition, Sara’s attitude towards money is a response to that of her father’s: whereas Reb Smolinsky seeks get-rich-quick schemes and feels entitled to all family wages, Sara views money not as an end itself but as a means of achieving her goals and a hallmark of independence.

Sara also learns and grows from her romantic relationships and infatuations. When Max Goldstein pressures Sara to abandon her studies, Sara clings to her books and refuses him; her ability to choose between a relationship and her studies nourishes her budding independence. After Max leaves, Sara observes, “There was a glow in my face that was never there before….I had an assurance that I never had before. I was thrilled. Flattered. Ripened for love….He only excited me. But that wasn’t enough.” [4] Sara realizes that she can one day find a man who embraces her whole self—books and all—and who encourages her to pursue her goals. Mr. Edman’s rejection is also a learning experience for Sara: “That affair…made me grow faster in reason…. Each time, after making a crazy fool of myself over a man, I was plunged into thick darkness that seemed the end of everything, but it really led me out into the beginnings of wider places, newer light.” [5] For Sara, rejections brought maturity and a clearer understanding of the world and herself. Furthermore, Sara’s existence is strengthened by her relationship with Hugo Seelig: she overcomes her loneliness, which she perceives as an obstacle to personhood. [6]

Despite her growth, Sara does not achieve absolute independence. Each visit home, she is entangled in familial struggles. Reb Smolinsky’s living with Sara and Hugo will also tether Sara to her old life. Even without her father under her roof, Sara will never fully escape the Old World: “It wasn’t just my father, but the generations who made my father whose weight was still upon me.”[7] The mixed tone at the novel’s end demonstrates that this tie to the old is not wholly undesirable. By reconciling old and new in her life, Sara comes to accept the Old World on her own terms, and this confirms her existence as an independent, thriving person.

[1] Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers, 3rd ed. (New York: Persea Books, 2003), 137.

[2] Ibid., 205.

[3] Ibid., 137-138.

[4] Ibid., 200-201.

[5] Ibid., 231.

[6] Ibid., 279.

[7] Ibid., 297.

10 thoughts on “I Struggle, Therefore I Am

  1. Even at the beginning of the novel, the reader gets a sense of how much control Reb has over his family and their struggles. Through his use of prescribed nicknames for his daughters based upon his perceptions of their strongest–and in his eyes, mostly negative–attributes. Often, Yezierska uses these nicknames in the book more so than the girls’ real names. Through this measure, the father’s perceptions seem to manifest themselves increasingly throughout the story. This is most visible in the case of Bessie, as she seems to carry the burdens of the world (i.e. men) dutifully, but unhappily. Only Sara, whose nickname is Blood-and-Iron, is able to use her strongest attribute to remove herself from some of her dependency upon men. To her father, this is a more positive characteristic, if only she had been born a boy.

    1. I definitely agree–the use of nicknames instead of given names seemed strange to me throughout the text, but I think it gives the reader a better sense of the perceptions that the women had of themselves and how others perceived them. It was almost as though, at some points, these women lived up to the expectations ascribed to them through their nicknames. Interestingly, Blood-and-Iron had both positive and negative connotations, but Sara managed to push through and make it positive.

  2. In a way Sara’s journey to come to terms with her father and her past is like that of so many women. I was struck by the forward by Alice Kessler-Harris. Kessler-Harris felt a deep connection to Anzia Yezierka’s work because she too had a father like Sara’s who, for different reasons, did not want his daughter to follow her passion because he thought it was foolhardy. This connection of a woman’s struggle to balance old ideas of a female with the pursuit of a new role and the immigrant’s journey to balance the new and the old world made this book come to life for me. I felt like I could connect the females in my family tree and their struggles to both Sara and Alice.

  3. An interesting interpretation of Sara’s relationship with her father. I think your citation of Reb Smolinsky’s saying “It says in the Torah, only through a man has a woman an existence” in order to bolster your argument is a perfect example of the many ways that one can interpret religious scriptures.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out! I searched high and low for some line of Torah that mentions women needing men to exist, in the hopes I could then look up some Talmudic interpretations and gain more insights on Orthodox Judaism’s attitudes towards women. My suspicion is that “only through a man has a woman an existence” is actually an interpretation of Genesis 2:21-23: “…He (God) took one of the man’s (Adam’s) ribs…Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib He had taken out of the man….The man said: ‘…she shall be called “woman” for she was taken out of man.'” Interpreted literally, without men/Adam, women/Eve could never physically exist. But when did the rabbis ever interpret anything literally? If anyone has any biblical citations or interpretations to add, I’d be very much obliged.

  4. Sara’s struggle to honor the opinions and views of past generations with her new values in a new society are very similar to struggles that many American born minorities probably feel, from many timer periods in American history. African Americans like me, born in the US and into families that have lived in the US for generations, there are still ideas and viewpoints that previous generations try to instill in youth of today that may or may not be relevant to their new society and situation. They struggle to reconcile their own identity as being a member of that culture and history and at the same time be independent and forge their own opinions through trials and also accept the rhetoric of a new generation or society. Seems Sara’s struggles may not be just new immigrant struggles, but possibly universal.

  5. I believe an excellent companion to this post would be how Sara’s mother influenced her growth. Though Shenah Smolinsky remained obedient to her husband in lieu of her own happiness and health, I believe that the strength and resilience that she imparted on Sara was an equally powerful source of motivation. In the end, it is her mother’s death and her wish for Reb to be cared for that ultimately reunites Sara with the world she ran away from. The heavy hand of her father pushed her into the world to seek knowledge and independence, but her mother’s heart and sense of family brought her back once her journey of self-discovery had taken its course.

    1. That’s an excellent point. While the primary focus of this blog was dissecting the irony of a woman finding existence through her experiences with men, I would have loved to have had the time and space to discuss the role of women in her life, which also affected Sara’s growth towards personhood. I think I also felt constrained by the fact that Sara’s interactions with men are more deeply dwelled upon than with women.

  6. This post provides a strong interpretation of Sara’s relationships with the men in her life and how those relationships affected her goal of achieving independence. While reading the book, I was most struck by how similar Sara and her father were. They possessed the same strength of will, stubbornness, and inflexibility, although they employed those traits to different ends. A personality clash between them was unavoidable. Although the ending was bittersweet (I can’t even image Sara, Hugo and her father under one roof!) it also represented Sara and her father traveling full circle. Sara’s decision to invite her father to live with her also signals her maturity, rationality and ability to see his true colors. He no longer had any power over her and my interpretation is that their future interaction would be decided on her terms.

  7. Breaking down your argument further, we need obstacles to grow as people. For Sara, these obstacles are not so much the men in her life, but the expectations of her behavior in relation to the men in her life. Her father, and Max, and even her sisters and mother want her to behave more as a “woman,” i.e. more subservient to men. I think this argument is what makes Bread Givers such a strong feminist text, especially as it was interpreted in the 1970s!

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