Customer Reviews: Bread Givers: A Novel
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on December 27, 2000
Some 75 years after its initial publication, Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers surely deserves recognition as a classic of Amerian literature. I regret not having read this moving and provocative novel earlier in my life; I know its themes of self-discovery, conflicted Jewish identity and Americanization would have encouaged both identification and introspection. I am astonished that high schools today do not include this as an essential core text (instead opting to use F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, also published in 1925 as a paradigmatic novel). Yezierska's novel has the ring of truth to it, resonating with such crucial themes as self-awareness, cultural marginalization of immigrants, loss and recovery of ethnic identity, feminist discontent and awakening sexuality. In my mind, Sara Smolinsky has far more to teach us about the American Dream than Jay Gatsby. Yet, the prevailing literary criticism lionizes the WASP world-view of Fitzgerald and essentially disregards the Jewish/immigrant sensibilities of Yezierska.
The novel is uncommonly accessible. Dialogue carries much of the action; the chapters could be read as independent short stories, and internal soliloquies provide us with the opportunity to test our own judgments against those of the earnest and self-actualizing Sara Smolinsky. The suffocating but omniscient presence of her tyrannical father best represents Sara's constant confrontation with conflict. The dilemmas provided by the father-daughter relationship ring with universal truths even though the setting is particular to the Hester Street Easter European Jewish experience. I know that my Latino, Asian, and Pacific Islander students could easily translate this novel, some three generations old, into their own experiences.
The Persea Books edition owes its existence to the admirable efforts of Professor Alice Kessler-Harris, whose exceptional introductory forewards are worth the price of the edition alone. Professor Kessler-Harris sheds light not only on Yezierska's tumultuous life but provides a scholarly discussion of the significance of the novel.
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on December 24, 2002
It is difficult to read BREAD GIVERS by Anzia Yezierska and not feel the same barrage of competing emotions that afflict nearly everyone in the book. On a literal level, Yezierska writes of the struggle of Russian/Polish Jews to assimilate in the New York just before the First World War. The action is narrated over a period of some dozen years by Sara Smolinsky, who begins the novel as a ten year old girl, one of three other sisters. We see the action filtered through her eyes, so there is the natural reaction to perceive events as she does. But what she sees is so emotionally shattering that the reader soon learns to substitute his own experiences as that filter.
Sara and her family live in New York but their world view is heavily shaped by their origins in the Old World of eastern Europe. In that society, the male head of the household is the master. Not only does he dare claim that women have no place in running a household, but he also can point to the Torah as justification. Sara's father, the Reb Smolinsky, is drawn in such a nasty, vindictive way that he all but emerges as a one dimensional caricature of all that can go wrong when one hides behind saintly words as an excuse to bully others. The Reb refuses to work for money; he expects his family to do that, leaving him time to study the Torah. He routinely squashes flat his daughters' confidence by insulting them daily. He arranges disastrous marriages for them, and when these marriages go predictably bad, he avoids responsibility by telling them, 'As you make your bed, so must you sleep in it.' But because he appears in every chapter, he, rather than Sara, becomes the center of dramatic focus. He is so vile and hateful that the reader even begins to question the source of the Reb's tirades: the Torah itself. Long before the final chapter, the reader begins to see the inevitable results of what happens when a weak-minded individual takes words and ideas which are intrinsically noble and bastardizes them into something monstrous. There is no evil that is beyond the Reb's ability to twist from a more benign source as the Torah. Sara's other sisters suffer long years of acquiescence, slowly building a fund of bitter gall that simply awaits the opportunity for a well-deserved revenge. For the longest time so does Sara, but what happens to her is the rarest miracle of all. Sara tries against stupendous odds to come to grips with the ages old paradox: should one return good for evil? It would have been so easy for her to take the route of her sisters, to return hate for hate. Sara is the only one in a book full of hurt people inflicting verbal pain on others who even tries to peek behind that curtain of verbal weapons that masks a festering sore of decades. She is a towering figure of strength and discipline that lingers in the mind long after the pathetic sadism of a reb finally begins to wear out its welcome in the lives of civilized people. BREAD GIVERS serves to remind the reader that words can heal as well as hurt.
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on March 11, 2001
Even though this book is probably set anywhere from the late 1890's to early 1920's--as the book was first published in 1925--as a woman it is hard not to be totally offended by Reb. Smolinsky's attitudes towards women. He says: "A woman without a man is less than nothing. A woman without a man can never enter Heaven." As a Christian, I obviously find this belief to be totally untrue, but it is the statement that a woman is nothing without a man that just makes me wish that Reb. Smolinsky was standing in front of me so I could strangle him.
Even though I hated the father more than words can say, I still gave this book five stars because it is so unbelievably inspiring. Sara Smolinsky does not allow her father to completely dominate her. She does not allow him to marry her off to a man that she does not love--like he did her three older sisters. She leaves home around the age of seventeen and works in a laundry store all day and takes night classes at night for years so that she can go to college. She has to make so many sacrifices along the way, but she never gives up on her dream of graduating from college and becoming a teacher. The fact that she was able to work her way out of poverty, get an education, and obtain her dream of becoming a teacher was just so inspirational.
I read this book for a literature class on American Immigrants, and I am so thankful that teacher assigned the book because I got a lot out of it. Watching Sara's transformation in this book from an uneducated and emotionally uncontrolled woman into a cool and controlled professional who could succeed in America, in a way her father never could, was a kind of growing experience for me, as well.
Also, as I neared the end of the book, I kind of began to see the father in a different light. Yes he was a horrible tyrant to the women in his family, but he was also like a fish out of water flopping around helplessly. He had been uprooted from his home in Poland and replanted in America where nothing was like it was for him back in the Old World. Therefore, there are times when Reb. Smolinsky really comes off as this just completely pathetic character, and I almost would have felt sorry for him if he had not put all the blame for his failures on his wife and daughters--and made their lives even more miserable because of his failures.
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on May 18, 2004
My name is Bessie Hurwitz, and I read this book in my 6th grade LA class.This book is deep and touching. It is told though the youngest of the Smolinsky daughters, Sara. The father is a preaching tyrant. He cannot make a living, but sits and prays all day, saying the woman is the curse, and blames his daughters for his mistakes. Sara runs away and tries to survive in the world by getting a college education. This story paints life for immagrants in New York during the early 1900's. Sara tells about how she feels about life. I can really enter her world. It is not a light read, but it is worth your while. The ending seems disapointing, but I don't want to ruin it for you. It's one of the books that you'll never forget about.
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on January 22, 2015
This story, written in the early 1900s, about a family of Russian Jews living on NY's Lower East Side is predicable in it's ending and melodramatic in it's writing style, but it is an important book in two ways. First it shows what lfe was like in the late 1800s, early 1900's, when people struggles to make a living and live in this country while trying to hold on to the old ways, the ways of the country they left behind. We see this in the father, who wanbted to do nothing but study the Torah while his daughters supported him. In Russia this was accepted, the idea of the full time scholor whose only responsibility was to read , study and pray. He cannot accept the fact that there is no room for study only, everyone has to work to succeed, and it drives him to make very bad choices.

It is also a book concerned with feminist ideas and ideals. The youngest daughter does not want the life where work is the only thing she has. She wants an education, will not settle for an arranged marriage, wants to be a teacher, wants more than to just support her family. It forces her to leave home and live alone, to break away from her tyrant of a father, to reject easy marriages, to work her way through college and to finall succeed at becoming a teacher. The story is predicatable, you know she will succeed and finally meet a good man, but she also learns you have to balance the past with the present and future.

A very interesting book, you just have to remember when it was written, and not compoare her writing style to something you'd see written today.
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VINE VOICEon November 4, 2005
for being such a tyrant, for spoiling his daughters' wedding plans, and for RUINING their lives -- and believe me-- that kind of stuff REALLY went on in those days! And I wanted to shake some sense into her mother for PUTTING UP WITH THIS!!!

Sara Smolinsky's life most probably parallels Anzia's real life. And if that is true, then I have the UTMOST respect for Sara/Anzia who against all odds, and especially as a woman back in the 1920's, found a place for herself and worked VERY hard to get that education and respect and "the good life" that all the middle-class American kids took for granted.

Someone reading this book today -- who has not read any books on the Immigrant experience or who has not become aquainted with Immigrant life in America in the early 20th Century -- wouldn't have a CLUE as to what it was really like back then, and to them this book would perhaps only serve to confuse or bore (!) them. Hopefully this book will not only shake readers out of their complacency, but it will encourage them to read other books about the Immigrant experience, such as "call it Sleep" by Roth.

The Bread-Givers is a great book.
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on February 1, 2003
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in America. Told at a time when America was more innocent yet the dark clouds, the roots of todays hegenomy, were gathering. Bread Givers is a largely autobiographical story of one woman's struggle to make a life for herself despite a time and place that conspire against her. Like the author Anzia Yezierska, Sara Smolinsky, the daughter of poor Russian-Jewish immigrants fights against the tyranny of her father, a rabbi, and his old-world beliefs in order to become a self-reliant person. In a broader sense, she also struggles against the social norms of the early twentieth century. Her journey is full of hardship and surprises, not the least of which is that...not to give it away. Sara is a character which is so full of life and vitality she seems to leep from the page. I wonder if Sara is a proto-type to characters seen in later fiction, espcially science-fiction of the early sixties.
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on March 15, 2006
Anzia Yezierska's "Bread Givers" is, in a sense, two overlapping stories. The first half of the book is the melodramatic tale of an impoverished Jewish immigrant family living in the New York ghetto, a family suffering under the tyrannical and hypocritical piousness of the father. At times the foolishness and ineptitude of the father is almost comic, but the suffering inflicted on his family is harrowingly poignant. The second half is a psychologically and sociologically astute feminist coming-of-age tale, as the youngest daughter breaks from her family to re-define herself as an "Americanerin," leaving for college and eventually becoming a teacher in her old neighborhood. The broader strokes of the novel's opening give way to provocative considerations of the difficulties inherent in the narrator's at times ambivalent desires for assimilation within an alien culture and for a self-respecting independence from her own patriarchal family.
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on July 23, 2014
This is a wonderful book that all American women should read. The main character is part of a large family that immigrated to America looking for economic opportunity denied to them as Jews in Russia. The father of the family, however, is irresponsible; he cares only for his religious studies and does almost nothing to provide for the well-being of his family. The daughters must bring in every penny to support the family and the frantic mother, who at first seems such a shallow, stereotyped character, proves to be an amazing woman in how she endures her crazy husband. One by one, all of the daughters save the youngest have their true loves driven off and are forced to marry men who cozen the father into thinking they are great potential mates. It's horrible how helpless they are in the face of tradition and their father's erratic, controlling personality. The youngest won't stand for it. She breaks free and learns to be a person on her own, without needing a man to define her value. Remember that these people were taught that a woman can't be a person, can't even have prayers answered let alone attain Heaven, without unswerving service to a husband or father, NO MATTER how that husband or father might treat them. This is such a satisfying book. I understand that all of Yezierska's books are pretty much this same story and that this one tells that story best. This is probably required reading for feminist/Jewish studies classes as well it ought to be. If you have an interest in 19th century immigrant culture, New York City history, or just plain enjoy stories where a woman stands up for herself to make her own way in the world, you'll love this book. Give it to a teenage girl who has low self-image or loves to read. Sara Smolinsky will be a great role model for any girl anywhere. No, she isn't flawless. But she is a person among persons! Only get it on your Kindle right away and prepare to read late into the night!
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on April 19, 2016
My college professor had us read this book for class. I found it to be a really quick read as well as actually pretty interesting. We were required to answer an essay prompt and I easily was able to retain enough about the book to make an A on the essay. It is interesting to see how the father behaves towards women and treat his daughters. I enjoyed reading about Sara as she was trying to "become her own person" as we discussed in class.
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