Anzia Yezierska’s 1925 novel Bread Givers ends with Sara Smolinsky’s realization that her father’s tyrannical behavior is the product of generations of tradition from which he is unable to escape. Despite her desire to embrace the New World she has just won her place in, she attempts to reconcile with her father and her Jewish heritage. The novel is about the tension inherent in trying to fit Old and New worlds together: Reb tries to make his Old World fit into the new, while Sara tries to make her New World fit into the Old. Sara does not want to end up bitter and miserable like her sisters, but she does not want to throw her family away all together. Her struggle is one of trying to convince her patriarchal family to accept her as an independent woman, while assimilating into America without not losing too much of her past.
On the surface, Reb does represent the Old World, and Sara the New, but despite their being on opposite ends of the spectrum, they are remarkably similar characters: both believe in their own versions of the American Dream. Reb insists on leaving behind most of the family’s possessions because America is a “golden country, where milk and honey flow free in the streets” (9). The only possessions that are necessary are his books, “the light of the world” (9).
Reb is the product of thousands of years of patriarchal tradition; he has been brought up to believe that “God didn’t listen to women…Women could get into Heaven because they were wives and daughters of men. Women had no brains for the study of God’s Torah, but they could be the servants of men” (9). Reb’s behavior must be tyrannical because the eternal souls of his family rests on his shoulders, his wife and daughters are not capable of getting into Heaven on their own. His father-in-law specifically wanted him to spend twelve years doing nothing but studying in the synagogue (31). Reb holds the sanctity of his religion so deeply that he will not even consider getting a job as a Rabbi because he believes it would turn him into a “false prophet” selling his religion to “Americanized Jews” (111). Even after he is tricked into buying the grocery store, he insists that everything that happens is from God, “for our good” (125). Reb loves America for being the land of opportunity, where can start with nothing and end up becoming a millionaire like Rockefeller; but he despises it for granting too much to women: “Woe to America where women are let free like men” (205).
Sara has wanted to get away from her family her entire life: “I was always saying to myself, if I ever had a quarter or a half dollar in my hand, I’d run away from home and never look on our dirty house again” (22). But the instant she does have this money, her only desire is to go home and show everyone what she is capable of achieving. This is the essence of Sara’s struggle: her aspiration to become a teacher stems from her desire to prove to her family, specifically Reb, that she, as a...