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Bread Givers: Words as Weapons,
This review is from: Bread Givers (Paperback)
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.