Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Descriptive Blurb for Breadgivers, by Anzia Yezierska

Anzia Yezierska was very possibly the first woman to write about American Jewish immigrant life in authentic Yiddish/English dialect. And no, I don't mean those cutesy Yenglish words like "shmutz" and "chutzpah." Interestingly, Yezierska doesn't use these words in her novels. Instead she uses English words written in Yiddish idiomatic form. "He should rot in the gutter with a pumpkin for a head."

The result is that the reader is transplanted to the early 1900's on the Lower East Side more completely than in any other literary venue she will ever be privileged to visit.

The actual story of Breadgivers is one that echoed to some extent in the overwhelming number of apartments -"tenements"- on the Lower East Side during this time:  intelligent young woman feels trapped by her parents, and especially her father, who wishes to study Torah as he did in the Old Country but does not wish to educate his daughters. Some, however, do not move out, but obey their parents and make marriages which render them unhappy and trapped once more. Sarah, however -Anzia's alterego- moves out and experiences hardship, poverty and near-starvation. She meets someone who is not of the ghetto - Thomas Dewey's alterego (Anzia's romantic involvement)- but who treats her as a subject for his sociological study, not as an actual person. Eventually after heartbreak and determination to become a teacher even though she is laughed at and discriminated against at an Ivy League College, she does make headway, becomes a teacher and finally forgives her father.

The uniqueness of Breadgivers lies not in the story line or plot, but in the accuracy of the representation of its characters' emotions amid pitch perfect, letter perfect dialect. Rigorous realism, which was then belittled as "obsolete" after Yezierska wrote more books and some short stories as well.

Funny how Mark Twain's dialectal stories and books was never ridiculed as obsolete. Then again, he was not a woman and was not Jewish.

My great grandfather, a Torah scholar and tutor in the Old Country, made sure that his four daughters (and his three sons) were all able to read Russian, know Russian history, and know enough Hebrew to pray, although they spoke Yiddish in their home (until they came to the USA). However, he would only pay for college for the sons. This remained a sore point with the four daughters, one of whom was my grandmother. She eventually forgave him. I cannot be one hundred percent sure, but I  think the others did, as well.

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