Book Notes – The Bread Givers

The only sin on earth is to let life pass you by.

I’d never heard of Anzia Yezierska, The Sweatshop Cinderella, when I picked up this book. Yet the plight of her semi-autobiographical protagonist, Sara Smolinsky, the 1920’s immigrant daughter of an authoritarian rabbi, felt vaguely familiar. As a baby-boom descendent of Eastern European immigrants, I watched a spinster grow old under her parents’ roof. Unlike Sara, she had freedom, but the spunk of self-determination seemed to have been scared out of her—a situation few young women in America today could fathom.

            So blinded by faith is Sara’s father, a man she calls more terrible than the Tsar from Russia—with his misogynistic authoritarianism, foolish pride, and incredible naïveté, that he seems to have stepped from Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Like Hans in Luck who prides himself on his bartering skills, trading a lump of silver the size of his head for a horse ,and then a cow, pig, goose, and finally a whetstone that rolls into the river—Rev Smolinsky wastes not only his riches but his daughters’ lives. He puts them to work so he can study the Torah, then thwarts their romances until time and broken hearts tame them into submission for disastrous arranged- marriages. At one point, even the mother is complicit, lying about her daughter’s dressmaking skills, just as the miller in Rumplestiltskin bragged that his daughter could spin straw into gold.

            Sara’s journey from subservience to self-reliance is a bit overly sentimental, but with such stilted characters and family dysfunction, how could it read otherwise? Most frustrating is the seemingly magical way in which Sara overcomes practical hurdles in her progress from factory worker to school teacher. Yezierska is to be commended, however, for having her heroine refuse a wealthy suitor who appears like a miraculous savior just when she most needs one. Sara is well into spinsterhood when she finally meets her soul mate and the love story peters out. Still, this imperfect narrative, fanciful as it may be, remains a compelling classic.