In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
At one of my first jobs in New York, I worked with an elegant, slim, freakishly tall young woman who occupied a cubicle by a window. She said things like, “I want to work for a couple of years before I get married and have children.” Men sent her flowers at work, and she had several handbags, rumored to be gifts, that were worth our month’s salaries. To me, this was an unimaginable alternate world, horribly antifeminist but also seductive. Where did one find men who sent flowers? Was there really a magic trick by which one could stop working? I knew better than to want such things. So why did it seem like this girl—her name, I’ve just recalled, was Suzanne—knew something I didn’t? Suzanne and I weren’t friends, but I occasionally lurked by her cubicle, looking at the graceful lines of her shoulders and the back of her head, wondering about her.
I thought of her recently while reading Anzia Yezierska (1880–1970), a Polish Russian Jewish immigrant to New York in the 1890s, whose best-known work is the novel Bread Givers (1925). As the Columbia University professor Alice Kessler-Harris puts it in the foreword to that book, Yezierska writes about being an immigrant and a young woman “in a world where ambition was the path to Americanization and ambition seemed designed for men.” In a distinctive and vibrant vernacular, Yezierska’s books capture the life of a now-vanished Jewish Lower East Side. She experienced brief acclaim in her lifetime, died in obscurity, and since 1975 (in part thanks to Kessler-Harris’s tenacity) has been back in print, slowly becoming a part of the new feminist canon. Read More