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.”  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?” 
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.”  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”  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.
 “Indviduality,” Merriam-Webster Online, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/individuality.
 Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (New York: Persea Books, 1975), 206.
 Yezierska, Bread Givers, 205.
 Yezierska, Bread Givers, 297.