“It says in the Torah, only through a man has a woman an existence”.  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.”  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!”  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.”  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.”  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. 
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.” 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.
 Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers, 3rd ed. (New York: Persea Books, 2003), 137.
 Ibid., 205.
 Ibid., 137-138.
 Ibid., 200-201.
 Ibid., 231.
 Ibid., 279.
 Ibid., 297.