Bread Givers and the Oppression of Individuality

What does it mean to be an individual? How do you define your individuality under the spotlight of cultural traditions? While reading Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, I was struck by the author’s translucent scrutiny of the oppression of women’s individuality. Yezierska calls into question the limited roles offered to women in traditional families and the constraints imposed on their freedom to speak for themselves.

This story is semi-autobiographical and one we have all heard before. Yezierska describes the life of self-motivated immigrants who leave the Old World to seek out new fortunes in the United States. Once they arrive, many start to work their way up the social ladder while others hold tight to traditional ways. Many struggle with the horrific conditions of the tenements and struggle to find a balance between honoring traditions and growing accustomed to American ways of life. She does an excellent job capturing a generation and brings the oppressive and misogynistic creeds present in many orthodox old world structures to the forefront of readers’ minds.

The dictionary defines individuality as the “total character peculiar to and distinguishing an individual from others,” or simply a “separate or distinct existence.” [1] In Bread Givers, Sara Smolinsky central conflict is not with the dominant American culture in which she has entered, but with the traditions and assumptions imposed on her by her father. Sara’s father, Reb Smolinsk, makes it clear that women have no value of their own outside of serving men:

“It says in the Torah, Breed and multiply. A woman’s highest happiness is to be a man’s wife, the mother of a man’s children. You’re not a person at all. What do you make from yourself? Why do you hold yourself better than the whole world?” [2]

Bread Givers is full of men and even woman oppressing the individuality of other women. Many women throughout the novel accept the fact that their existence is tied to the men around them. Sarah and her sisters are always competing with their father to have the right to choose their own spouse. After Sara refuses to marry Max Goldstein, her father turns into a tyrant of the Old World proclaiming, “It says in the Torah: What’s a woman without a man? Less than nothing—a blotted out existence. No life on earth and no hope in heaven.” [3] As if only men had the right to be people. Sara pushes back against a society that believes she should be seeking a husband instead of knowledge. She continues to emphasize her right to pursue her own goals in her own terms.

This oppressive shadow follows every woman throughout the novel, reminding them that the life they live is not their own. It does not matter if they are the most submissive or the one that got away, in the end they all have to sacrifice a part of themselves or risk losing it all. I have to empathize with the father because the life he leads is not his own doing. Sarah comes to this same realization, “I felt the shadow still there, over me. It wasn’t just my father, but the generations who made my father whose weight was still upon me” [4] Sara’s struggle for individuality is far from over, because the lingering expectations of her culture weigh heavily on her conscious. Despite Sara’s search for identity, her right to individuality remains tied to her family. Feeling as though she failed her mother in life, Sara feels she has to sacrifice her independence in order, not to fail her mother in death by taking care of her father.

Undeniably, the oppression of women’s individuality in Bread Givers forms a thematic thread outlining Sara’s various attempts to live her own life. She wants to be seen and respected as an “individual” in her own eyes and the eyes of others. While individuality does not seem that far-fetched given the United States obsession with individualism, especially the notion of the self-made man, on the other hand, the self-made women, on the other hand, has always played the victim to scrutiny. This book has made me call into question the perception of women today, not only in the United States but also throughout the world. How much have they sacrificed to stand where they do today and how many are still fighting for the right to individuality? Perhaps, there are limits to individuality, more than meets the eye.

[1] “Indviduality,” Merriam-Webster Online, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/individuality.

[2] Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (New York: Persea Books, 1975), 206.

[3] Yezierska, Bread Givers, 205.

[4] Yezierska, Bread Givers, 297.

20 thoughts on “Bread Givers and the Oppression of Individuality

  1. You make a great point that women’s individuality is still being suppressed today. When I read Bread Givers, I was appalled at the father’s behavior, and I felt so grateful that my own father didn’t treat me that way. I feel lucky to live in a time and place where my individuality and rights as a person are respected, and I can make my own decisions about my future. But this post reminds me that not everyone has that freedom, and the issues faced by Sara Smolinsky are still being faced by many people around the world today.

    1. I agree, many women throughout the world do not possess the right to be their own person. Rather for religious, traditional, or personal reasons the stories echoed throughout Bread Givers ring true today.

  2. You make a good point about a limit of individuality. In the end, we see Reb “tolerating” Sarah’s choices. As long as she does as he wants, he will stay. Would that still be oppression? I say it could eventually lead to that situation. The weight of her ancestor is weighted upon her.

  3. Another idea I found compelling in this novel is the balance between family and individuality. Sarah, in an attempt to become an individual, almost completely abandons her family. She physically and emotionally separates herself from her parents and sisters so that she can receive an education and obtain a respectable occupation. When she returns to her family, Sarah seems to lose a little bit of that freedom and individuality she had worked so hard to earn. In the novel Sarah cannot truly live for herself as long as she maintains ties with the rest of her family.

    1. Emily, Matt, and Christine all make great points about the novel. Christine, your comment about Sarah’s identity being tied to her family makes me think about all the different identities Sarah negotiates. Sarah must move through the world as a woman in an oppressively patriarchal Jewish environment. It is interesting to compare Bread Givers to “Caroline’s Wedding,” where Edwidge Danticat also explores the ideas of family and identity. In this case, Danticat explores family identity as tied to Haitian culture. For Sarah, Caroline, and Grace, does being an individual mean cutting ties from familial, religious, or ethnic traditions? How can people reconcile these clashing identities?

      1. That’s a great question Carly. I’m not sure how some people navigate so many clashing identities. But, your question makes me think of people who are multiracial or homosexual and Christian; the need to reconcile clashing identities is a burden not easily overcome.

    2. I agree, Sarah had to sacrifice her ties to her family in order to gain independence. But, in the end she had to give up some of that to remain true to her family.

    3. In many ways the struggle to escape oppression or poverty is an issue that individuals who are part of a marginalized group continue to feel today. Individuals who are part of institutional or family oppression who aspire to escape poverty or the cultural traditions that hold them back often continue to feel that oppression even after leaving the situation. Like Sarah, these individuals often face disapproval from their families or people from their community who are not striving to better themselves and leave poverty or oppression. They are caught up in between trying to show support for their families while trying to make a better life for themselves.

  4. Kim, I think you really captured the precarious position those like Sara were in during the great rush of immigration to the U.S. How do you embrace this new country and its ideals when your roots and family enforce something completely different? Alan M. Kraut defines assimilation as the “fusion of two cultures, not the just adaptation of one over the other.” Sara in Bread Givers shows us that the assimilation process is not easy, clear-cut, or harmonious. I think her struggle and story is still true with immigrants today.

    1. Thank you, Sammy. You make a great point about assimilation and I agree that Sara’s story shows us how difficult assimilation can be. I also agree that the struggle is still very real for many immigrants today. I think some people in the U.S today miss the true meaning of assimilation when it comes to current events in immigration.

  5. As Kim points out, this novel brings up so much about the oppression of women, even in a nation that prides itself on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Sara wanted nothing more in life than to be educated, to pass that love of knowledge onto others, and to have a clean quiet space to herself. If she had been born a male, her father would have been overjoyed to have a son with a passion for learning. The fact that she is a woman, however, means that her only duty is to marry a rich man, raise his sons and continue to take care of her father. I felt very conflicted while reading this novel; because I kept rooting for her to just leave her family and pursue her own dreams. However, family is truly important, despite how narrow minded they may be. I am inspired by how Sara achieves her own life goals, but also takes her father in after all the negative things he said and did. This makes her a true heroine.

    1. I was thinking the same thing about family, Caitlin. I found myself rooting for her to get away from the family and to build the life she wanted. I even felt a little disappointed in the end when she came back to her father. It felt like she was taking a step back. But you are right, family is important. There is a bond created within families that is very difficult to break. When I started exploring this idea a little more I began to feel better about the ending. Family can determine who you are, but Sara would not accept that. She broke the mold, so to say, and built her life. This is true strength and courage, and I agree, she is a heroine.

    2. Sara is the true heroine of this tragic story. Sometimes family is all we have to hold on to, no matter how much we disagree with their ways.

    3. Caitlin, I often felt the same way. It was so frustrating to me to see her father push all of these Old World ideas on her and try to control all aspects of her life, from her job to her pay to her chose of partner. But family, especially to immigrants, can create strong feelings of a need to stay together in a new environment and guilt if you abandon your family. Sara really had to struggle to find her own way to balance these two sides of herself and come to a compromise that made her feel happy. In the end, I think she achieved this for herself – even if I wouldn’t have done the same thing, she is happy.

  6. Kim I totally agree with your points about the role of gender in the oppression of individuality. However, I don’t completely agree when you say that Sara’s central conflict was struggling against the oppression of her culture and her father. I believe that so-called “American” culture played its own part in the oppression. Throughout the book Sara struggles with fitting in and trying to reconcile her character with American ideals of success, beauty, and materialism. Her cultural identity and socio-economic status are not respected by those she encounters in the American education system, and she works hard to change the things about herself that don’t fit. Yes, it is much easier to see the oppression her father’s words and actions cause, but the subtle stamping out of cultural individuality by “American” culture might even be more oppressive under the guise of “individuality”.

    1. Tori, I accept your disagreement and I agree with the strong point you make. I only focused on the oppressiveness of Sara’s father and saw that as her central conflict. But, I could not agree with you more. Throughout the novel, Sara is in conflict with her father, other women, and American culture. A culture that prides itself on individuality yet works hard to mold people into the “ideal” American.

  7. I actually was thinking a lot of the same thoughts as well, Sammy. I especially liked your point about immigration today and how we can look back on those who struggled previously to assimilate. Sara clearly struggled with trying to blend her old world family’s culture, and the culture of her new home. Her struggle to define her identity is still reflected in American culture today with newcomers to the country trying to deal with the blending of different cultures and ideas to create their own identity.

  8. Sammy, I think you make a great point bringing in the definition of assimilation as a “fusion of two cultures” rather than one achieving dominance over the other. I know that I usually think of assimilation as a minority group melting into a larger, more dominant group and letting go of at least part of their original culture. The idea of assimilation as a melding of two cultures is inspiring. Unfortunately, today, mainstream white culture usually expects immigrants to adapt completely and forego their traditions and languages in exchange for being considered American. I can’t imagine the difficulty of Sara’s struggle to balance the expectations of the Old World and the New World and figuring out how she feels she fits into each.

  9. Melissa, Caitlin, and Kim; I felt the same way reading this, just feeling so much for Sara’s struggle to be independent and create a life of meaning and purpose while still somehow remaining tethered to her family and Old World roots.

    For my classmates that may have little or no exposure to traditional Judaism (what we now call Orthodox Judaism) prior to reading Bread Givers, I just want to make the point that this is not representative of traditional Judaism in 21st century America. While they still hold fast to the teachings of the Torah, and often do appear to slide into the traditional gender roles of the Old World, women of this community are for more independent than the world Yeziersky is describing. For example, one of my father’s long time partners in his practice is an orthodox woman. She has raised a lovely family in the traditional Jewish model, but is also a strong independent career focussed woman. She even leads occasional seminars on women in the Bible at the University of Michigan. It has been my experience that she is more the rule than the exception that Sara Smolinsky would have been.

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