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A family story from the days before the Jewish American "upward mobility."
on March 22, 2014
It seems that lazy narcissistic parent makes for a great story these days. Back in 1997 we had the good intentioned yet perpetually drunk father in Angela’s Ashes. Then came The Glass Castle, where the college educated parents refuse to work and take their children on an Odyssey through the worst parts of the USA. Then came Fiction Ruined My Family, Honky (I don’t know how many people bothered with that one) and now Bread Givers. The only difference is that Bread Givers was written in the 1920’s. It predates all these books by decades.
The story begins on the dirty, smoggy, crowded, noisy Lower East Side of Manhattan in the days before the car. Sarah Smolensky slaves away, as do her sisters, so that her “scholar” father can spend all day at his holy books. Their mother? She slaves too. Taking in a boarder to help with the bills is out of the question, because the great scholar needs the extra room for his books. Take a job? How dare they suggest he work, when he has scholarship to attend to. You’d think his wife would say “work, or you eat last” but that doesn’t happen either. She has to give him the best part of the meat. But don’t blame this lazy, callous husband and father. Back in the old country, his wife was taught to do that.
My problem with this book is that the last chapter should’ve been extended. It’s absolutely wonderful; Sarah goes to an upstate college, breathes fresh air for the first time, and comes back as a public school teacher. Now she has a paycheck, can afford a decent room, nice clothes and she can walk down the street with her nose in the air. After all that she (and I, the reader) had gone through, this was literally a breath of fresh air. It gets funny when she tries to get her students to pronounce the words right; they call a pearl a “poil” and to drive her nuts, they pronounce the word oil as “earl.”
Bread Givers was forgotten for decades until feminist scholars brought it to light in the 1970’s. It’s a somewhat entertaining read (mostly at the end) and shows that not all Jewish families were happy ones. We tend to view Jewish Americans as the model minority, always free of problems, but it wasn’t always that way. My grandmother’s family believed in education and hard work, but there were some dysfunctional families too. Bread Givers is just that; a dysfunctional religious Jewish family whose success (aside from that of the protagonist) is still a generation ahead of them.