In the Spirit of Love

Love and Bread: In Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, the protagonist Sara Smolinsky becomes the most Americanized member of her family as she grapples with love of oneself, filial love, and romantic love.

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. [1]

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.”[2] 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.’” [3] 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.

[1] Alice Kessler-Harris, foreword to Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska (New York: Persea Books, 2003), viii.

[2] Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers, (New York: Persea Books, 2003), 157.

[3] Ibid., 172.

9 thoughts on “In the Spirit of Love

  1. Another lonely Valentine’s Day comes to a close.

    I latched onto this theme as well. What girl today hasn’t “pulled a Smolinsky”–shouted from the roof that they don’t need a man, then be dazzled by the first Max Goldstein who comes along, with his real estate investments and endless lodge meetings and California exoticism and love of New York nightlife? (Okay, I may be more guilty of this than most.) In all seriousness, I think her initial rejection of the idea of romantic love, then gradual realization that that type of love does not have to weaken one’s sense of self, was the most humanizing part of the story.

    1. I completely agree with your interpretation of this theme. I would also argue that Sara’s experience with Max Goldstein made her appear more human and easier for the reader to relate to. Sara’s initial infatuation with Max, which gave way to the hard reality that they were not compatible, is a story many women can identify with and understand.

      1. It’s also interesting to compare Sarah’s infatuations with Max and Mr. Edman to her infatuation with Morris Lipkin. Her immature reaction to Morris’s rejection stands in sharp contrast to her outlook of rejections as learning experiences post-Max and Mr. Edman. I wondered why her crush on Morris was even included in the book, but I believe that it was used as a yardstick (in comparison with the outcomes of her other relationships) to measure how much she’s grown.

    2. I agree. In the struggle to find herself and become independent Sara rejects love, but it is not until she becomes an individual that she is able to find love. This is an inner turmoil that many women deal with. It is interesting to see these common threads in a book about a world that is far away from my own.

  2. “But to marry myself to a man that’s a person, I must first make myself for a person.” I think this is the strongest line and the real turning point of this book. Despite claims by her father, and then more so later by his new wife, about disgracing and rejecting her duties to her family, Sara realizes that the only true way to reconcile with the old ways and still be herself is through respecting herself and pursuing her goals. Although she eventually ends up fulfilling her obligations to her family, if she would have immediately done so this reconciliation would have never occurred.

    1. Indeed. I found that the only way to read this book without banging my head against the wall in frustration was to consider it the story of one girl’s journey to personhood. I was somewhat surprised at the end when she chooses to support her father, but I think it is an indication of her newfound confidence in herself.

  3. I often found myself feeling angry and frustrated when reading this book, but this post’s focus on love provides a welcome interpretation. Love, especially self-love, was the necessary foundation that Sara needed to achieve success, happiness, and more complex love. Though I truly enjoy the essence of Valentine’s Day, modern commercialization and marketing often gives the holiday a manufactured feel. Therefore, I can really appreciate the genuine examples of love in Bread Givers. Love may be imperfect and it may hurt at times, but true love also heals and sustains. I’ll take that over a Hallmark card any day.

    1. I also agree that modern commercialization and marketing give Valentine’s Day, among other holidays, a manufactured feel. While Sara ultimately reconciled with her personal identity and with her father, I also wonder about the outside influences that may have pushed her to take charge of her own destiny.

      This aspect of loving one’s self also takes me back to the readings about the Tenement Museum and their emphasis on dialogic learning–would this have been possible before our current age of general equality? In order to encourage productive conversations, museum facilitators emphasize the importance of people sharing their personal stories and experiences, and they aim to de-romanticize notions of early immigration. Is it simply the perspective that time allows that can give people those romantic notions, or did earlier immigrants like the Smolinskys also initially view immigration this way?

      1. That’s a good question, about how new immigrants viewed older immigrants in the US. I think to some immigrants like the Smolinskys were probably told about the myths of how anyone could get rich quickly in US or the “streets are paved with gold” myth which probably encouraged their move to the US. Memory and what older generations want or don’t want younger generations to know can probably also change how images of immigrants from the past are viewed.

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