Bread Givers is a novel written by Anzia Yezierska.
The Smolinsky family is on the verge of starvation. The older daughters, Bessie, Mashah, and Fania, can't find work, and Mashah spends what little money she has to make herself look more beautiful. Their father, Reb Smolinsky, doesn't work at all, spending his days reading holy books and commandeering his daughters' wages—his due as a Jewish father. When Mrs. Smolinsky despairs over the situation, the youngest daughter, Sara, promptly goes outside to sell herring and makes the family some money. Later, the older girls find jobs, and Mrs. Smolinsky rents out the second room, improving the family's financial situation.
Quiet, dutiful Bessie soon falls for a young man named Berel Berenstein and invites him home for dinner one night. The rest of the family is excited for Bessie, but when Reb Smolinsky finds out, he decides he can't live without the wages Bessie brings in. Though Berel is willing to marry Bessie without a dowry, her father says Berel must also pay for the entire wedding and set him up in business as well. Berel refuses and storms out. When he says Bessie should defy her crazy father and marry him at City Hall, Bessie says she doesn't dare. Berel promptly gets engaged to someone else, crushing Bessie's spirit.
Mashah is the next daughter to find a romance that Reb Smolinsky considers inappropriate. She falls in love with Jacob Novak, a piano player from a rich family. Mashah's father disapproves of the match and blackmails Jacob into staying away for several days, breaking Mashah's heart. When Jacob comes back to beg for forgiveness, Mashah feels defeated enough to stand by and let her father kick Jacob out for playing piano on the Sabbath. Reb Smolinsky also disapproves of Fania's sweetheart, a poor poet named Morris Lipkin, and shames him away. He then arranges marriages for all three girls, which leave them all desperately unhappy. Sara is furious with her father for what he's done to her sisters, but her age and gender leave her powerless.
Despite Mrs. Smolinsky's warning, Reb Smolinsky takes all of the money he got from Bessie's marriage and sinks it into a grocery store that the previous owner had filled with fake stock. Sara and Mrs. Smolinsky must again scramble for survival, and each day they endure increasing criticism from Reb Smolinsky. One day, Sara reaches her breaking point. She runs away from home and decides to become a teacher. She plans to live with either Bessie or Mashah, but both have been beaten down by poverty and bad marriages. Instead, she rents a small, dirty, private room of her own. To pay for it, Sara finds a day job in a laundry, using her nights to study and take classes.
The life Sara has chosen is not easy. She faces discrimination for being a woman and living alone; her fellow workers ostracize her; her mother begs her to come home more often; and her unhappy sisters nag her to find a husband of her own. On top of all this, Sara is desperately lonely, and when she is visited by an acquaintance of Fania's, Max Goldstein, she nearly marries him and gives up her dream of seeking knowledge. When she realizes Max is interested only in possessions, however, she refuses him. When Reb Smolinsky hears of this, he's so furious with Sara that he promptly disowns her.
College is another struggle against poverty and loneliness, but Sara wants so badly to be like the clean, beautiful people around her that she perseveres and graduates. She gets a job in the New York school system, buys nicer clothing, and rents a cleaner, larger apartment as a celebration of her new financial independence. Her excitement ends quickly, however, when she learns that her mother, whom she hasn't visited in six years, is dying. Though her mother's deathbed wish is that Sara take care of her father, Reb Smolinsky quickly gets remarried to Mrs. Feinstein, a widow who lives upstairs. His daughters are deeply offended by this insult to their mother, and after Mrs. Feinstein tries to extort money from her new stepchildren, all of them decide to stop speaking to their father.
Furious at her unexpected poverty, Mrs. Feinstein writes a nasty letter to Hugo Seelig, the principal of Sara's school. The letter, however, actually draws Hugo and Sara together, and their bond tightens as they talk of their shared heritage in Poland. This new relationship finally marks the end of Sara's loneliness, and in her new happiness, she decides once again to reach out to her father. Hugo does this as well, and the novel ends with the implication that Reb Smolinsky will soon escape his new wife by moving in with Hugo and Sara. Sara's life has come full circle.
- Sara Smolinsky - The youngest Smolinsky daughter and narrator of Bread Givers. The most fiercely independent of Reb Smolinsky's daughters, Sara wants more than any of them to create a life of her own. Though she admires her father's dedication and inner flame, she is also deeply resentful of his hypocrisy and the chances he has denied all his daughters. She develops crushes on men with similar dedication and fire, seeking a more willing and understanding role model than Reb Smolinsky, as well as a companion who will acknowledge and appreciate the identity she's struggled to build. Sara is willing to work hard to get what she wants, but her ceaseless craving for companionship and tendency to romanticize her situation sometimes distract her from her ultimate goal. At the end of the novel sara dies and her husand and 2 kids are left rich.
- Reb Smolinsky - The head of the Smolinsky family and Sara's major antagonist. Extremely dedicated in his religious beliefs, Reb Smolinsky has devoted his entire life to studying the Torah and other Jewish holy books. The spirit he gathers from these studies fills him with a holy light that leaves others in awe but causes family problems when Reb Smolinsky confuses this spiritual knowledge with more worldly wisdom. His innocence often leads him to make foolish decisions that he refuses to acknowledge, insisting that a man as learned as he could never make such mistakes. After his wife dies, he remarries quickly and forces his daughters to remain with him as long as possible because he knows he needs someone to take care of him.
- Shena Smolinsky - Sara's mother and Reb Smolinsky's long-suffering wife. Shena is truly in awe of her husband's holiness, though she complains bitterly about the poverty it forces on her. She also feels protective of her husband—he lives so much in his own world that it's hard for him to function in the real one. She firmly believes a woman's highest aspiration is to be a wife and mother, and despite her husband's manipulations, she genuinely wishes to see her daughters settled into good marriages. Though she doesn't understand why Sara desires a different route, she loves her enough to support her in the best way she can.
- Bessie Smolinsky - The oldest Smolinsky daughter. Bessie is the major financial support for the family, and even at a young age she is worn out from constant stress and work. She despises her father for using up all her good years for himself but is afraid to leave because providing for others is the only life she knows. Resentful of her status as an old maid, Bessie finds joy in her eventual marriage to Zalmon only because of the affection that her youngest stepson, Benny, feels for her. The only reason Bessie agrees to marry Zalmon is that Benny needs her.
- Mashah Smolinsky - One of the middle Smolinsky daughters. Mashah is extremely beautiful, and the rest of the family thinks she is vain. In fact, Mashah needs beauty to sustain her, and her own looks, as well as the music in the park, are the only resources she has. She falls in love with the music Jacob Novak makes before she even sees Jacob himself, and when he breaks her heart, he destroys her hope of finding any more beauty in the world. She wastes away to a worn, quiet shadow of her former self, and hints of her former spirit show only in her enjoyment of her children and the cleanliness of her small house.
- Fania Smolinsky - One of the middle Smolinsky daughters. Comfortable with speaking her mind, Fania goes further than either Bessie or Mashah in defending her sweetheart. However, Fania is also more practical than her sisters and attempts to make her father's choice of husband work for her. Ultimately unsuccessful, she complains bitterly about her marriage at every opportunity and, though she frequently derides Sara's accomplishments, appears jealous of her sisters, as well. Though she lives across the country, Fania keeps in regular contact with her mother and sisters.
- Berel Berenstein - The clothing cutter with whom Bessie falls in love. An ambitious young man who plans to open his own shop, Berel wants to marry Bessie because she's a sensible, competent girl who would be a great help in running his business. Somewhat sporadic in his religious observance, Berel thinks anyone who clings to the old ways is crazy and has no patience for anyone who attempts to make him follow those ways.
- Hugo Seelig - The school principal with whom Sara falls in love. An intelligent, well-respected man, Hugo is filled with the knowledge that Sara longs for and admires. A kind man who treats everyone with respect, Hugo puts far more value on his personal observations about people than on what others might say about them. Hugo still feels a great bond with the old country and the customs he was raised with, and he holds Reb Smolinsky's learning in awe.
- Morris Lipkin - The poet with whom Fania falls in love. A pale young man with a shabby coat and a desperate need for a haircut, Morris believes strongly in the power of both love and poetry. When Reb Smolinsky forces Fania away from him, however, he becomes bitter enough to crush Sara when she comes to him with her own dreams. Morris earns a living writing for newspapers and spends his free time at the library.
- Jacob Novak - The piano player with whom Mashah falls in love. The son of wealthy parents, Jacob has grown up with money but doesn't share his father's prejudice against those who haven't. Though he cares deeply for Mashah, Jacob loves music more than anything else and will temporarily sacrifice even Mashah in order to continue performing it.
- Moe Mirsky - The diamond dealer Reb Smolinsky chooses to be Mashah's husband. A charming and generous man on the surface, Moe is in fact a calculating liar who will say anything to get what he wants. Unable to hold down a regular job, he emotionally abuses Mashah and thinks nothing of dining out and wearing fancy clothes while his wife and children starve.
- Zalmon - The fish peddler Reb Smolinsky chooses to be Bessie's husband. A basically honest man who desperately needs help caring for his children, Zalmon genuinely means to give Bessie everything he promises her during their courtship. However, he is too conservative to bother finding out what might actually win her over—one of many concerns he feels is too “Americanized.”
- Abe Schmukler - The cloaks-and-suits dealer Reb Smolinsky chooses to be Fania's husband. Abe substitutes expensive presents for genuine affection or attention, both during courtship and after he and Fania return to Los Angeles. A compulsive gambler, Abe uses his wife's appearance to show the world how affluent he is.
- Max Goldstein - Abe's partner, who comes to New York to court Sara. A self-made businessman who is derisive of the education he never had, Max is completely focused on money, possessions, and potential profit. During his time with Sara, he flaunts his wealth and worldliness instead of showing any interest in her needs.
- Mrs. Feinstein - Reb Smolinsky's second wife. Originally a widow who lived above the Smolinskys' place, Mrs. Feinstein pretends to be a supportive woman but truthfully cares only about financial gain. She feels life owes her a certain amount of wealth, and when she doesn't get it, she takes vengeance on everyone around her.
The internal light that several characters in Bread Givers either have or are seeking symbolizes their self-chosen purpose for living. Reb Smolinsky spends all hours of his day devoting himself to understanding the Torah and other holy works, and many people talk about the light that shines constantly from his face. This is especially true whenever he's expounding on a scripture or holy principle. Love for Jacob Novak is what finally brings light to Mashah's face, as she turns her time and energy from maintaining her own appearance to tending to Jacob's every need. Yezierska talks about the innocent light that shines from young Benny's face, and Bessie decides that caring for him will be the purpose that makes her marriage to an old fish peddler tolerable. Sara spends most of the novel struggling to get an education, hoping to find a purpose that will define her life the way religion defines her father's. She admires Hugo Seelig so much because he is lit by that purpose. The light of knowledge shines from him and touches everyone he knows.
For Sara, the chance to be alone represents the achievement of her own identity. When she was growing up, her father was always allowed time and space to be alone with his books while he forced the women to crowd together in the remaining available space. After finally defying her father and running away back to New York, the first thing Sara does is eat a meal with just herself for company, reveling in her independence. She believes that a room where she can be by herself, her next goal, will give her the chance to focus on studying and be free from the pressures of her family. She prefers solitude to being with Max because, though he is fun to be with, he tries to make her into a perfect little possession instead of the teacher she wants to become. When she does become a teacher, she buys another little room of her own to celebrate the experience. It is larger and much cleaner than the first, but more important, it's even quieter and more isolated, as safe from dirt and shouting as she wants her life to be from poverty and her past.
A “Real” Person
Sara spends most of the book wanting to become a “real” person, an unreachable state of being that symbolizes everything she believes a successful and happy person should be and have. Early in her life, a major qualification for being successful and happy is money. According to Sara, real people also sit down for dinner at a table and go out and earn their own money. This idea urges her at a young age to sell herring on the street. Later, being real means living on her own, where she has the space and the quiet to figure out who she's supposed to be. When she finally becomes a teacher, she believes she is real for a while. However, Mr. Seelig shines with a greater internal light than she does, and she decides this light is what it takes to be real. In Sara's mind, it's impossible for her to become a real person: no matter what she does with her life, there will always be some better and more perfect thing to be.