In this thesis paper I will be analyzing one of the most admired ‘Coming-of-the-Age’ novels, Bread Givers, written by Anzia Yezierska. This is a story of the clashes that every immigrant will have to endure – the invisible interior clashes and, as a direct consequence of them, the visible exterior conflicts. The story revolves around such cultural intricacies that, after completing the reading, it will engage us in a captivating debate on the very psychological infrastructure of human beings and the culture on which it is built.
I will subsequently prove that this captivating debate will lead us to one final conclusion - which is the central argument of this work - stated as above in the thesis title. } The fact that America has more number of immigrants than any other part of the world combined, speaks volumes about the kind of peculiarity with which it attracts millions of people from across the globe. In fact throughout the history of America we can observe that the waves of immigrants are closely associated with the evolution of this country from the States of America to the United States of America.
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Since Bread Givers is a semi-autobiographical novel in nature, it becomes imperative that this paper begins the analysis from the author herself. Anzia Yezierska was born in Poland, sometime between 1880 and 1885. Her father was a religious scholar (Talmudic), and the large family, there were eight siblings to Anzia, was supported by the labors of her mother. This Yiddish family migrated to New York around 1890 taking a cue from Anzia’s elder brother Meyer who had migrated to America a few years before and had changed his name to Max Mayer.
Here the family changes its family name to Mayer and the young Anzia becomes Hattie Mayer. But later as she grows mature, in her late twenties, she sheds this fictitious name and re-possesses her original name and retains it throughout her life in America. What transpires in her life from now on forms the fundamental premise of this novel. Anzia tells the story through the main character Sara Smolinsky. She has three sisters: Bessie, Fania, and Mashah; Shenah is Sara’s mother and Moses (also called Reb Smolinsky) her father – an idle man who spends time by reading Jewish religious/traditional books.
Strained Parent-Child Relationships: Immigration Induced or Unfinished Business? The portrayal of strained relationships between parents and their children is one theme of this novel which must be paid due attention and diligent dissection since there exist a number of instances which make it esoteric to understand as to what causes what effect. In the novel the family head, Mr. Reb Smolinsky, is an idle man who never earns livelihood for his children and his wife Mrs. Smolinsky (Shenah) is a truly orthodox and docile woman who is in complete trepidation of her husband’s holy knowledge.
In between such parents we find these four daughters struggling every second of their life to attain happiness and to lead an independent life. Sara is un-equivocal about the harsh constraints that her father has placed on her elder sisters (and later on herself) and how ‘religiously’ he had crushed their dreams, and made them work harder and harder. The novel opens with a grim scene which Sara narrates thus: "I HAD just begun to peel the potatoes for dinner when my oldest sister Bessie came in, her eyes far away and very tired.
She dropped on the bench by the sink and turned her head to the wall. One look at her, and I knew she had not yet found work. I went on peeling the potatoes, but I no more knew what my hands were doing. I felt only the dark hurt of her weary eyes. " (Anzia Yezierska; Bread Givers; Chapter I: Hester Street; Page 1) Even though it is quite convenient to assert that the immigration’s uprooting effects and impacts as the reasons behind such strained parent-children relations, but I do not agree with this.
Justifications for my dissent galore through the length and the breadth of the novel. For example consider the instances of Bessie and Mashah’s romantic aspirations and how her father destroys them without even paying slightest of slight respect to the innocent desires and the natural right of an individual. Read what a downhearted and flabbergasted Bessie says: “I know I’m a fool. But I cannot help it. I haven’t the courage to live for myself. My own life is knocked out of me. No wonder Father called me the burden bearer”.
(Anzia Yezierska; Bread Givers; Chapter-III: The Burden Bearer; Page 52, 53). As a consequence of these broken love affairs and their subsequent failed marriages (arranged by their father Mr. Smolinsky), these women suffer the bearings all along their life. Now, what’s the role of immigration here? Mr. Smolinsky would have confiscated his daughters in Poland as well because it is precisely in the pursuit of those sacred Jewish scriptures for which he devoted his life not even bothering to earn a livelihood for his family and then forcing his daughters to earn for him.
Therefore, rather than the impact of immigration, it is the ‘unfinished businesses’ (psychologically) which strain the relationship between the children and their parents. Sara’s Conflicts – Culture of America & Shtetl at the Turn of the 20th Century: The differences between American culture and that of the Shtetl at the turn of 20th century help us to understand the conflicts between Sara and her father Mr. Smolinsky. While Mr. Smolinsky is a representative of old, orthodox genus, Sara belongs to the new, liberal kind of genre.
Her father believes in the rule of the Jewish divine scriptures, but Sara discards his concerns for store decisions with utter disdain. She opposes him for his every authoritarian decisions and the ruthless way in which he used to enforce his thoughts and beliefs onto his daughters. Deeply immersed in his world of the exploration of Torah, Mr. Smolinsky contentiously disregards his outer world – a practical world of joys and sorrows. When Sara rejects the marriage proposal with Mr. Max Goldstein, the words in which her father Mr. Smolinsky slates her confirm his conformist view about life.
He says: “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. ” (Anzia Yezierska; Bread Givers; Chapter-XV: On and On - Alone; Page 202). In deep contrast to such Jewish outlandish beliefs, the dawn of 20th century brought ‘classical liberalism’ with it which heralded the individual liberty as the ideal upon which the societies and governments must thrive. Sara clearly acts as a fitting envoy of this liberal living. These conflicts can be traced to the Shtetl Culture and the historical importance of them for Jews.
Joshua Rothenberg says: “I am, of course, suggesting that the larger Jewish communities and not the shtetlekh were in all periods the real centers of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. It is relatively simple to classify the Jewish communities which became centers of Jewish culture: they were called Ir eo-Eim im Be-Yisroel (Town and Mother in Israel), and were so designated in documents and writings of the respective periods of history. The term "shtetl culture" is therefore used incorrectly; the correct term should be "Eastern European Jewish culture.
" ("Demythologizing the Shtetl" in Midstream (March 1981): 25-31). These words differentiate between the absolute nature of Shtetl Culture and its influence on the Jewish families. However, the up rise of liberalism in the US ensured that individual rights remain the prime concern for the society. Mr. Smolinsky's Personality Traits/Values and Sara’s Quandaries: An interesting element of the novel is that despite being a loud opponent of her father’s beliefs, towards the end of the novel Sara starts feeling in a parallel direction as regards to his thoughts.
When she understands that she can’t be completely happy unless she finds a man, Sara equates this state of hers with what her father had told her when she declined to marry Mr. Goldstein. By the time Sara reaches a stage in life when everything she had dreamt has come true, she realizes that her once sturdy father has become fragile. Her mother is on the deathbed and she has one last wish that Sara should take care of her father who is alone and weak. By this time Sara has fallen in love with Hugo Seelig – a school principal.
The internal conflict of Sara makes her feel the guilt of failing her mother in life and this guilt brings about a major shift in her thoughts when she decides to take care of her once despotic father. It seems as though she has reached the point from where she started her voyage towards finding her own identity and freedom. She says in the last line of the novel: 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”. (Anzia Yezierska; Bread Givers; Chapter-XXI: Man Born of Woman; Page 281).
Hence the psychological quandaries of Sara propel her towards that state where she discovers, rather unwillingly, that she carries the same kind of flame which had kept her father aloof and immersed in exploring the Torah. Eventually, Sara realizes that her reconciliation with her father completes the unfinished business of the relation between a father and a daughter. We finally conclude that immigration has complex and deep cultural impacts and these impacts can’t be substituted by instant transition into the new culture. As we have seen in Sara’s life, she attained the state of completeness only after reconciling with her father.
In other words reuniting with her past culture, and only in that she found solace of her life, of all her rebellions and her adventures of life. With this point, it follows that my thesis statement declared above stands proven right. Works Cited Anzia Yezierska; Bread Givers; Chapter I: Hester Street; Page 1 Anzia Yezierska; Bread Givers; Chapter-III: The Burden Bearer; Page 52, 53 Anzia Yezierska; Bread Givers; Chapter-XV: On and On - Alone; Page 202 Joshua Rothenberg; "Demythologizing the Shtetl" in Midstream (March 1981): 25-31 Anzia Yezierska; Bread Givers; Chapter-XXI: Man Born of Woman; Page 281
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