Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bread Givers

I purchased Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska a few years back while my family and I were in Washington D.C.   We toured The Holocaust Museum, which was heartbreaking but  informative and well worth the tour.  Afterward we spent a few minutes browsing the museum kiosk store.  This book's synopsis caught my attention so I bought it, brought it home and added it to my bookshelf.  Maybe I should have read it right then but I waited four years and pulled it off just recently. 

Snynopsis:  Sara Smolinsky, the youngest daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, watches as her father marries off her sisters to men they don't love.  The sadness and injustice of their broken lives leads her to rebel against her father's rigid conception of Jewish womanhood.  "No girl can live without her father or a husband to look out for her," he proclaims.  "It says in the Torah, only through a man has a woman an existence."  But Sara replies, "My will is as strong as yours.  I'm going to live my own life.  Nobody can stop me. I'm not from the old country.  I'm American!"  She leaves home, takes a job as an ironer, and rents a room with a door:  "This door was life...the bottom starting point of becoming a person."  Set during the 1920s on New York's Lower East Side, the story of Sara's struggle toward independence and self-fullfillment-through education, work, and love-is universal and resonates with a passionate intensity that all can share. (from the back cover)

My thoughts:  You can see why the book appealed to me.  Sara is an intense character who, as the youngest, watches all these family mistakes play out.  Rather than allow her father to ruin her own life she strikes out on her own, leaving behind her mother, father and sisters.  Her sisters make fun of her even as they complain about the terrible marriages their father has forced them into.  Father's love of the Torah and studying are completely (for lack of a better word at the moment) CRAZY!  He takes the Torah at it's word only as it applies to help his cause. 

The struggle between family members, old and new traditions, right and wrong are so fanatical and vivid-I raced home every night to read a few more pages before making dinner.  It made me grateful for my own father who was very forward thinking and giving of his time and thoughts, unlike Sara's father, who never listens and always talks with bitterness.  Not only were the characters memorable but the language was extraordinary.  This book will stay with me for a long time but only in spirit because as per the Reading From My Own Shelves Project I must depart with it-I'm glad it is going to a good home.  Tina graciously accepted  to take it home with her. 

Memorable quotes: 

and this one from a particular blue day while she is living alone working hard each day to put away money to go to school:

Had a miracle happened?  My father come to see me?  In a rush of gladness words from Isaiah flashed before me as in letters of fire: "I will join the hearts of the parents and the children."  Never had there been any show of feeling between Father and us children.  Only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, he put his hands over our heads to bless us.  Now, as I looked at him, he seemed to me like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Solomon, and David, all joined together in the one wise old face.  An this man with all the ancient prophets shining out of his eyes-my father.  (she's so happy to see him even after all the bad)
"Father," I cried.  An then my voice stopped.  For I suddenly became aware of his cold, hard glance on me.
"Is it true what Max Goldstein said?" His eyes glared.  "Is it true you refused him?"   Not a word could force itself out of my tight throat.  "Answer me! Answer me!"  His voice grew louder and harsher. 
"It wasn't the real love," I stammered, hardly aware what I was saying.
"Love you want yet? What do you know about love?  How could any man love a lawless, conscienceless thing like you?  I never dreamed that a decent man would want to  marry you.  You had a chance to make a good ending to a bad play, and you push away such a luck match with your own hands.  I always knew you were crazy.  Now I see you're your worst enemy."  (204)
There is so much wonderful in this book-this newer version has a great forward and introduction written by Alice Kessler-Harris, which gave me a lot of insight into Anzia Yezierska's life.  It's not often I wax poetic about an intro to a book but it's a great opening.  I wish this book would be mandatory reading for high school or college.  It's fits into many different themes: history, gender studies, religion, philosophy, early immigration to the U.S., and  American labor in the 1920's.  It shows what it was really like to work hard and hope for a better life.  I'm so glad the forces that be made me pick this book and purchase it.  I'm trying to get Teen-age Boy to read it before I pass it over to Tina.  Purchase this classic book from an IndieBound bookstore near on the title to find it-Bread Givers

Whatever you're reading today-I hope you are enjoying it!  I'll be reading and lesson planning while the game goes on but if I had to root for a team it would be the Green Bay Packers.  Why?  Because I've read about both quarterbacks and Aaron Rodgers wins in my book. 

"I'll show you how quickly I can marry off the girls when I put my head on it." "Yah," sneered Mother. 
 "You showed me enough how quickly you can spoil your daughters' chances the minute you mix yourself in. 
 If you had only let Mashah alone, she would have been married to a piano-player.""Did you want me to let in a man who plays on the Sabbath in our family? A piano player has no more character than a poet."      "Nu-Berel Bernstein was a man of character, a man who was about to become a manufacturer."
 "But he was a stingy piker.  For my daughters' husbands I want to pick out men who are people in the world."
 "Where will you find better men than those they can find for themselves?"
"I'll go to old Zaretzky, the matchmaker.  All the men on his list are guaranteed characters."
"But the minute you begin with the matchmaker you must have dowries like in Russia yet."          
"With me for their father they get their dowries in their brains and in their good looks."  (71)


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I really think I would like this book. I am so happy you blogged about it as it is new to me....

Lisa said...

I went to the Holocaust Museum all by myself and cried all the way through it. It has stuck with me more than any other similar experience (museums, etc.) I too bought a book there, but the title escapes me at the moment.

bermudaonion said...

This sounds like a great book and Sara sounds like my kind of character!

Eileen said...

Bread Givers actually is assigned reading in many middle schools. Which is great because, as you and I and many others pointed out, it's a pretty universal story.

I liked it overall, but my reaction was a little less enthusiastic than yours. I loved the Yiddish-inflected English but found the narrative very episodic and spotty, and many of the characters cliched and caricatured. For that reason, I think Bread Givers functions best as a younger YA novel.

I've long wanted to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum. I'll probably be in the area this spring or summer so I'll be sure to set aside some time for it.