On Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers


The Review’s Review

Still from Hungry Hearts, an adaptation of a novel by Anzia Yezierska. Courtesy of Goldwyn Pictures. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

I had recently begun attending Sarah Lawrence College when Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers was first introduced to me. I was twenty years old, but as a married Orthodox Jewish woman with a one-year-old child to show for myself instead of a high school diploma, I had been enrolled in the continuing education program for one year in order to prepare for proper matriculation. The blunt hairline of my voluminous wig paired with my over-the-knee skirts would have been enough to render me the exotic outsider to my worldly classmates even if I hadn’t revealed my heavy accent or my ignorance of basic cultural references. So when an older classmate who hadn’t previously made much effort at conversing with me thrust the worn paperback into my hands, I was caught unawares by her sudden attention.

“Maybe you’ve already read it, but I thought, just in case …”

Eyeing the title and the unfamiliar name of the author, I shook my head in bemusement. “Is this some famous classic,” I asked, “some essential part of the canon I’ve missed and need to catch up on?”

She laughed. “Not really,” she answered. “But back when I was in college the first time around, some acquaintances of mine were instrumental in its republication, so that’s how I know about it. I came across it again recently while I was spring cleaning, but you know how it is with coincidences. They rarely are. I thought of you immediately; I felt strongly that this book was meant for you.”

Taking that portentous statement on its merit, I began to read the book the same day, parking my car on the side of the road on the way home from class for as long as I had until my husband returned from work, reading behind the steering wheel instead of on my sofa for the sake of peace and privacy. Even today I cringe when remembering the experience. As I read about the impoverished Orthodox protagonist suffering through the deprivations of the Lower East Side tenements while dreaming of dignity and education, I felt as if my classmate, in handing me the book and saying it was “meant for you,” had in effect publicly shamed and exposed me—had lumped me together with the novel’s Sara Smolinsky into the category of awkward, vulgar greenhorn. The woman who had seemingly seen right through me might have had good intentions, but she had grown up in a posh Massachusetts town, had a hyphenated last name, and lived in a historic mansion in the most expensive town in Westchester with a handsome husband who was a big name in finance. She was, in fact, exactly like everyone else around me in college at the time: well-educated, privileged, and refined. On top of that she was adorned with the garlands of enlightenment, studying feminism and women’s literature after having spent the last two decades raising her sons. So of course her gesture did not feel welcoming at all; it felt pointed and exclusionary, a humiliation akin to what the novel’s protagonist, too, experiences among her college classmates.

I put the book away then, and didn’t share my thoughts with the woman who had given it to me. I didn’t even look at it again, although for some reason I hung on to it through multiple moves over the following years. Was I hoping to one day revisit it with the satisfaction of having distanced myself from its trajectory? Did I imagine that its contents might someday wound me less? Only just before I moved abroad, in 2014, did I finally give it away with all the other books that hadn’t become indispensable favorites. It was, even then, still too close to home to be close to my heart.

Reading it now, fifteen years after it was first pressed upon my unsuspecting younger self, it’s easier to grasp the nature of the anxiety and shame it triggered the first time around. Back then I had not understood that the dialogue I was reading was vernacular; I knew only that I sounded similar when I spoke English, and the mysterious nature of the difference between how I sounded and how my peers sounded had plagued me greatly. Like me, the novel’s author, Anzia Yezierska, was born in the shtetl, albeit a hundred years prior. During her early childhood in Poland or her adolescence in the impoverished immigrant neighborhoods of America, she would have been surrounded exclusively by Yiddish, except for the occasional newcomer’s patois. Today I can easily identify the direct translations from Yiddish in Yezierska’s dialogue, while some of the phrasing is so antiquated that I’m more likely to recognize it from German. The title of the book is an awkward compound that carries no immediate association in English yet is familiar to me from the German as well as from the Yiddish: bread givers, the antiquated German term for employer that carries additional spiritual connotations for Jews, with God being the ultimate wage-payer in a world that remunerates those of pure heart and good deed with divine beneficence.

Indeed, if there is anything I take away from Bread Givers after all this time and distance, it is its language. Now that the sting of its narrative implications has faded, the voice of the book sings in my ears with all its melodious emphatics. “It was like living among walking chunks of ice,” Sara says. “It was like looking up to the top of the highest skyscraper while down in the gutter.” I suppose I don’t think of Bread Givers as an English‑language book at all, even as it was ostensibly written as such by an immigrant who became an American, at least on paper. Yezierska was very much from the “old country,” and Bread Givers is suffused with the longing to transcend this origin story. But it’s too deeply infused with the spirit of the author’s European past, too intensely possessed by the ghosts of earlier shtetl tales. Only a decade later, Esther Kreitman (née Singer) would publish Der Sheydim-Tants, or The Dance of the Demons, a novel in which the semi‑autobiographical protagonist, Deborah, runs away from her Orthodox home, inspired by the one in Poland that the author was raised in with her significantly more famous brothers, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Israel Joshua Singer. The tale of the Orthodox renegade is as old as Yiddish literature itself, and continues to be its strongest pillar; that Yezierska’s version takes place in America does not separate it from its relations but rather radically expands what might have remained a relatively insular tribe. Bread Givers manages to clothe itself in the language of its setting without sacrificing any of its stubborn authenticity. It forms a literary bridge defying all laws of metaphorical engineering.

This is precisely what makes it impossible to confine it to its most natural genre: it is no convenient narrative of the American dream, much in the way Yezierska never seemed to have quite achieved the accepted version of that idea. The America I encountered nearly a century after Sara Smolinsky was not a melted‑down alloy but a chaotic patchwork of cultural and religious communities and sects, a constellation of enclaves, a jarring juxtaposition of warring, threatened identities, all of them oriented around a myth of Americanness that they would never embody. The experience of Americanness for me became one of minute fragmentation, of disharmony and friction resulting from the impossible and cruel demands of “melting.”

When I left my own community to go to college, I was as naive and hopeful as Sara is when she embarks on her journey toward independence. I thought I would be able to better myself and join the ranks of my peers by sheer merit. But nothing I did made me less of an outsider—not fixing my accent, not diversifying my vocabulary, not changing my dress. I would have had to completely subsume myself in the service of some amorphous Americanness; I would have had to negate everything that made me who I was, that had built my character and honed my inner voice. I would have had to perform—something I had been forced to do often during my childhood and adolescence, an ugly necessity I had always yearned to be rid of. And I found that I did not have the desire to exchange one system of conformist pressure for another. In many ways, I too chose to inhabit the marginal space between fixed worlds.

Perhaps that classmate of mine was onto something when she told me that Bread Givers was meant for me. It did not have the happy ending I thought I was fighting for, an ending that most likely wouldn’t have made me very happy after all. But we must each make our own way, and even today there are still many Sara Smolinskys out there, struggling to make sense of the only world in which they might have a chance to become an individual among individuals, or as Yezierska so aptly describes in the novel, her own version of the American dream: “To be a person among people!”


From the foreword to a new edition of Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska, to be published by Penguin Classics in May.

Deborah Feldman is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoir Unorthodox, the basis for the Emmy Award–winning Netflix series. She was raised in the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and now lives in Berlin, Germany.