Independence is a nuanced state of being, a concept affected by circumstance and measured in degrees. In her introduction to Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers, Alice Kessler-Harris writes that Sara Smolinsky, the story’s protagonist, returns home to her abandoned and destitute father in a state of triumph, having achieved the independence that signals her liberation from a repressive Old World misogyny. Sara becomes an educated, successful and happily married American woman, turning the tables on her tyrannical and ascetic father, whom Sara finds in financial ruin near the novel’s end. This is Sara’s moment to exult, to revel in her freedom, yet she finds she cannot expunge the squalid Lower East Side tenement community from her past, nor wash away her family’s fundamental Judaism. Sara may have succeeded in the New World but recognizes that the Old World will always be part of her. Her hard-won independence is, after all, a product of environment, a linear progression that would be bereft of meaning had it not been given content and meaning by the very background against which she struggled.
That she won the struggle should in no way be minimized or qualified considering the iron oppressiveness in which Sara and her sisters were raised. Moses Smolinsky expected nothing less than to transfer the socio-cultural world that gave meaning and form to his life to America. Doubtless frightened and threatened by a bewildering alien landscape, Moses’
religious orthodoxy is secure and familiar, a haven in which his wife and daughters must play their traditional role. That this role holds no future and no possibility of independence or personal fulfillment is of no importance to their father. Sara and her sisters exist to scratch out a meager income meant only to support their patriarch and his Talmudic studies. Moses rejects his daughter’s suitors one by one, adhering to Old World tradition by arranging marriages for them, each one aimed at increasing their father’s income.
In circumstances of indentured servitude, there can be no question of independence. But despite the cultural restrictions that come with being a woman in early 20th-century America, Sara’s ambition is fired by the opportunity she sees all around her, and she does the unthinkable: she rebels. “I’m going to live my own life. Nobody can stop me,” she rages at her father. She then issues her personal declaration of independence. “I’m not from the old country. I’m American!” (Yezierska, 138). Having drawn her figurative line in the sand, Sara sets about the work of realizing her dreams. Her determination bears fruit. Sara wins $1,000 for writing an essay, attends college and marries for love, all of which represents a blow aimed at her father and the bleak fate that once beckoned.
Outraged by her father’s too-soon marriage following their mother’s death, Sara experiences a kind of vindication when her father’s grasping wife leaves him penniless. But Sara finds that being an American is not enough to exorcise the ghosts of her past, nor absolve her from feelings of responsibility toward her father. America has provided the means whereby Sara reinvented herself, but a kind of cultural synthesis has taken place in which Sara’s American identity and her cultural heritage must accommodate each other. Ultimately, there is no other
possibility for her if she is to be made whole. Being made whole is dependent on balance, and it is balance that Sara gradually finds, though not by choice. In a sense, it finds her. Sara achieves independence when she achieves balance between her “American-ness” and her parents’ profoundly traditional Jewish heritage. In the novel’s final line, Sara expresses what she knows she must accept is she is to be truly independent. “I felt the shadow still there, over me. It wasn’t just my father, but the generations who made my father whose weight was still on me” (Yezierska, 297).
Much of the impetus for Sara’s struggle for independence originates in her conviction that her father and his faith are wrong in espousing a doctrine which teaches that women are worthless without men. Sara has the painful experience of her mother from which to learn, a pattern of sorrow and repression that she must break if she is to achieve independence. She has also the tragedy of her sisters’ experiences to draw from, each one of them victims of their father’s manipulation. In a sense, becoming truly independent is a function of proving her father wrong, of proving her heritage wrong, by succeeding in life as an American. Yezierska’s novel is about the inequities of gender as much as it is a chronicle of the immigrant’s struggle for survival. In that sense, Sara’s obstacles are twice as formidable as those confronted by male immigrants from this period. As such, Bread Givers is a compelling portrayal of Jewish women who came to America with hopes for love and success (Sternlicht, 30).
That Sara overcomes such odds we may ascribe to the fact that Bread Givers is an American story. Sara’s is the journey of an underdog, a theme uniquely identifiable with America, a land of immigrants. Independence meant freeing herself from the bonds of the past,
Thus, Sara attains balance in another important aspect of her life – her relationships to men. Having found a non-traditionalist Jew, Sara is struck by what she sees as the effortlessness with which he embodies both his Jewishness and his American identity. Sara vowed to marry for love in defiance of her father’s plans, but she little expected to find a man who could be a model for the kind of person she always wanted to be, an independent, successful and, above all, self-reliant American. We may assume that the positive influence of Hugo’s example has helped Sara come full circle with her father. With her perspective filtered through her love and respect for Hugo, Sara is able to come to terms with her father and the conflicting feelings that might otherwise have made it impossible for her to reach out to him. Sara’s American odyssey teaches us that independence can only come from within. It is, finally, a liberation of oneself by oneself and the most difficult part is freeing one’s mind and soul. Sara found the strength to sever her physical ties to family and the misery of an arranged marriage. But in the end she could only achieve independence by finding a way to come home to her father.
Sternlicht, Sanford V. Masterpieces of Jewish American Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood
Yezierska, Anzia, Kessler-Harris, Alice. Bread Givers. New York: Persea Books. 2003.