Saturday, January 29, 2011

"All pioneers have had to get hard to survive. . ."

"Look! My grandmother came to the wilderness in an ox cart and with a gun on her lap. She had to chop down trees to build a shelter for herself and her children. I'm more than a little ashamed to realize if I had to content with the wilderness I'd perish with the unfit. But you, child - your place is with the pioneers. And you're going to survive."

Anzia Yezierska was born in a shtetl in Russian Poland in 1882. Her father was a Talmudic scholar who devoted all his time to studying, leaving the neighbors' charity and her mother's occasional earnings to support the family of eleven. When the Yezierskas arrived in New York City in the 1890s, however, they found that pious poverty earned no accolades in America. While other Jewish immigrants shed the Old World and sought upward mobility, a few, including Anzia's father, clung stubbornly to tradition. But Anzia rebelled, leaving home at seventeen to work in sweatshops and laundries and attend night school and college lectures in her free time. After several failed marriages, she published her first story in 1915. Success quickly followed. A 1920 compilation of her work, Hungry Hearts, was purchased by Sam Goldwyn for $10,000, including a $200-week salary to help write the script. Still, despite her Hollywood fame and literary prestige, Yezierska found that she missed her culture. She returned to New York in the mid-twenties and continued to publish steadily with little fanfare. After 1932 she was strangely silent except for a few short stories and book reviews. Her final work, a fictionalized autobiography called Red Ribbon on a White Horse, came out in 1950.

Anzia Yezkierska's tales of poor people uplifting themselves through hard work fell out of fashion during the Depression Era, which seemed to make mockery of her favorite theme. But by the time she died in 1970, readers had begun to rediscover her work and students were inviting her to lecture. (Bread Givers Introduction) Today, Yezierska's concerns with acculturation and assimilation remain as relevant as ever.

Bread Givers (1925) is perhaps the most autobiographical of Yezierska's novels. Sara Smolinsky's life closely mirrors that of the author: she is a Jewish immigrant living in the Lower East Side whose headstrong ambition is opposed by a domineering, ultra-conservative father who does nothing but study Talmud and demand that his wife and daughters support him. After watching him crush her older sisters and throw away their chances at happiness all in the name of God and tradition, Sara vows that she will not submit to such Old World tyranny. She runs away at seventeen, finds work in a factory, and, operating on sheer willpower alone, puts herself through night school and then college. Her ultimate goal is not only material improvement but cultural and intellectual uplift as well. What Sara desires the most is a room of her own - the ability to live freely as a fully realized individual.

Sara's voice is highly significant. Bread Givers appears to be a direct story with little flair, but its narrator's Yiddish-inflected English has strong psychological underpinnings. Rahel Golub, a real-life Russian Jew and Yezierska's contemporary, recalled the impact of reading David Copperfield for the first time: "I turned to the first page of the story and read the heading of the chapter: 'I am born.' Something in these three little words appealed to me more than anything I had yet read. I could not have told why, but perhaps it was the simplicity and the intimate tone of the first person. I had not yet read anything written in the first person." (From Michael McGerr's A Fierce Discontent.) The word I is assertive: "I am [name]." "I want this." "I did this." To a young immigrant expected to subsume her identity in that of her family and culture, the individual as the very foundation and focal point of a story must seemed revolutionary. Just as David Copperfield is the story of David and his growth from boyhood to man, so too is Bread Givers Sara's own tale, expressing her bold personality, clear-cut goals, and strong opinions of the people and society around her.

The most influential person in Sara's life, for better or worse, is her father. You cannot talk about Bread Givers and Sara's journey without devoting some time to Reb Smolinsky. To put it simply: I have never wanted to throttle a fictional character more in all my life. Reb Smolinsky elicits a level of fury usually reserved for Complete Monsters. This sums up his philosophy:
The prayers of his daughters didn't count because God didn't listen to women. Heaven and the next world were only for men. Women could get into Heaven because they were wives and daughters of men. Women had no brains for the study of God's Torah, but they could be servants of men who studied the Torah. Only if they cooked for the men, and washed for the men, and didn't nag or curse the men out of their homes; only if they let the men study the Torah in peace, then, maybe, they could push themselves into Heaven with the men, to wait on them there.
(Heaven is a Boy's Club with few or no women? That's the most homoerotic thing I've ever heard.) Reb Smolinsky smothers his grown daughters to such an extent that they're incapable of resisting their forced marriages to, respectively, a scumbag, a gambler, and a widower their father's age looking for a babysitter. He brings the remaining family to ruin by refusing to listen to his sensible wife and falling for a financial scam. And every single one of his excuses and justifications for himself and his various hypocrisies is more misogynist and manipulative than the last: "You had a right to find out what kind of a man your husband was before you married him. . . As you made your bed, so must you sleep on it." He blames his mistakes on his victims!

Smolinsky is so over the top he's barely believable as a real person. He functions more as a symbol for the oppressive aspects of the Old World from which America seems to offer escape. But the big irony is that Sara's iron will came from somewhere, and in the end, she is the only daughter in any position to come to terms with him. The development of Smolinsky's character is actually the development of Sara's perception of her father in the context of her own struggles with acculturation. Finding that even her own intelligence and ambition are not enough to earn her a place with the proper middle-class Americans she encounters at college, she at last understands the source of at least part of Reb Smolinsky's despotism. He is the proverbial fish out of the water. Even the reader will start to feel for him, if only a little.

And while a first-person narrator is not inherently unreliable, it is still fundamentally an individual's subjective point of view. You start to wonder if a small part of Reb Smolinsky's characterization is colored by Sara's own desires for an unconventional, Americanized life, to which he stands in the way.

After a year in Hollywood, the very paragon of the American Dream's fulfillment, Anzia Yezierska found that personal reinvention was perhaps only possible for native-born men like Jay Gatsby. I was, she wrote, "without a country, without a people. . . . I could not write any more. I had gone too far away from life, and I did not know how to get back." Written after her return to New York, Bread Givers ends with a strained reconciliation between the Old Word and the New, despite all the incredible hard work Sara has put in to separate herself from the poverty of New York's Lower East Side. No matter what you do, your heritage will always be a part of you. Though as to how much, that's what every new American needs to negotiate for themselves. Bread Givers is a pretty simple read and can be quite Anvilicious, but its themes remain strong as ever.

The institution of men studying Torah full-time and being supported by their wives is still prevalent in Charedi ("ultra-Orthodox") Judaism. It had been on the wane in the United States but experienced a revival following the influx of refugees in the 1950s who wanted to rebuild the communities lost to the Nazis. Today this is a real issue among ex-Orthodox Jewish bloggers (such as this one and this one) and even a few of the faithful. Some yeshivas barely teach secular subjects, resulting in native-born Americans who can hardly speak English. I was first made aware of this custom in the novels of Faye Kellerman, but reading about Sara's (and Anzia's) struggles in Bread Givers puts a whole new spin on things.

Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers was The Wolves' first reading selection for 2011. Please feel free to join us for the rest! You can find the complete book list here.


Frances said...

You provided a lot of really great background info here that will be a real service to those contemplating the read. It did not work for me on the same level as for you but it was enjoyable. I found myself cheering Sara on at the same time that I desperately wanted her to shut up. Was also conflicted about the ending that seems to suggest that all of her struggling still does not free her from her background - a topic you address well here.

Richard said...

I had a mixed reaction to Bread Givers on account of its over the top qualities and its all too obvious storytelling trajectory. I did end up feeling for Yezierska's characters and enjoying her use of dialect, though, so all was not lost in the end. Might have appreciated it more as a memoir than a novel--not that the author gave me a say in the matter!

Shannyn (Libellule) said...

Thanks for all the background information. I skimmed the introduction a little, but I'm glad to learn more about the author's own experiences.

I also wanted so badly to "throttle" Sara's father for all his seeming hypocrisy and sexist opinions, especially in regards to his own daughters. He reminded me of the father in the Cairo Trilogy (who I also wanted to shake), except with a less interesting (to me) psychology.

Wendy said...

This is a terrific review of this book - although it sounds like you enjoyed it more than I did. I found Reb Smolinsky so despicable that I struggled through the parts that he "starred" in (although I do agree his character was so over the top that he was largely used as symbolism in the story). I also had a hard time with the language in the novel - lots of odd word choices which made it almost seem like a translated novel to me (and my copy of the book was full of typos that began to grate on me). BUT, despite my criticism of the novel, I do think it gives the reader an original glimpse at the immigrant experience in America. I'm still working on fleshing out my review...but hope to have it posted by the end of the day.

Eileen said...

Frances: Yeah, I still don't think Reb Smolinsky deserved the sympathy he received, but my life is so totally different from Sara's, I don't think I can really judge. Interestingly, her relationship with him reminded me of the relationship between Al-Sayyid Ahmad and his children. I should compare the two books in my upcoming Palace of Desire post.

Richard: You make a great point. Bread Givers is so autobiographical anyway, it would work great as a memoir.

Shannyn: Yes! But I actually found Reb Smolinsky the far more annoying of the two. I think it was because his daughters had more options available to them than Al-Sayyid Ahmad's did, and except for Sara, they don't take advantage of them. So their suffering was completely needless.

Wendy: I liked the prose style used here. You really got the sense that these people weren't speaking English.

Emily said...

Excellent background, EL Fay - I especially appreciated the links to bloggers grappling with the issue of Charedi men who expect/are expected not to go out into the world to work; those links were super informative & it isn't an issue of which I was previously aware. As I say in my post, an emphasis on the spiritual importance of study and debate is actually one of the things I really admire about the Jewish tradition, but it was interesting to have this reminder that, like everything, said emphasis can be oppressive when taken to an extreme (especially when it's restricted to certain sub-groups of people). Especially frustrating that while Sara obviously inherited her dedication to study from her father, he seemed for the most part totally unable to honor it in her. With the minor exception of times when it was convenient to do so.

Sarah (tuulenhaiven) said...

I found the two introductions in my copy almost more interesting than the book itself. Yezierska seems like she was an interesting person. Thanks for this nicely balanced review. There is certainly a lot going on in this little book, for all that it's almost overly simple.

Eileen said...

Emily: The relationship between Sara and her father really is quite ironic. They're so much alike and yet they spend most of the book at each other's throats. You have to wonder what their relationship would have been like if it wasn't for those oppressive cultural aspects.

Sarah: Yes, that sums it up: there's a lot going on with this book and yet it's so simple and straightforward. I found the introductions quite interesting too, which only sharpened my disappointment with some of the actual novel.

Peaceful Reader said...

I just finished this book and am working on my review. I loved it.

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