Monday, July 12, 2010
Breadgivers by Anzia Yezierska, 1925 (fiction)
This very interesting novel about an immigrant family from Poland who settled on Hester Street on the Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th century was written by a Polish immigrant whose family settled in New York and is frequently included in college courses. For example, it can be found on American Literature, American History, Jewish Studies, Women Writers, or Women’s Studies syllabi.
Yezierska has created the Smolinsky family who live on the Lower East Side, a family much like her own. The narrator is Sara, the youngest and most independent of Reb Smolinsky’s daughters who constantly locks horns with her father who spends his time studying Torah and who expects his wife and daughters to support him and to do his bidding, including marrying the men he chooses for his daughters. Defying her father, Sara moves out and works to put herself through school and becomes a teacher.
This novel recreates in much detail life on the Lower East Side – the tenements, the poverty, the pushcarts, and life inside their tiny apartment where their father has the best room for his studying and where one of Sarah’s sisters announces to the family that in America everyone has his or her own toothbrush and towel. We are pulled into a “war” between generations, between the old ways and the new, between duty to one’s family and a need to strike out on one’s own.
In telling this story, Yezierska creates authentic-sounding Yiddish-inflected dialogue. It is easy to recognize that the issues she raises are the ones many immigrants encountered as they made their way in a new country, the children often leading the way.
Click here to find many links for historical information and literature about the Lower East Side of NYC.
The Lower East Side, New York City
Hester Street, New York City
Elizabeth, New Jersey