It seems that lazy narcissistic parents make for a great story these days. Back in 1997 we had the good-intentioned, yet perpetually drunk father in Angela’s Ashes. Then came The Glass Castle, a crazy family saga. Next comes Fiction Ruined My Family, where the father spends years refusing to work, pipe-dreaming of the day he’ll become a great writer. All of them were predated by a lazy, good-for-nothing Rabbi, the protagonist of Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, written in the 1920’s. I can tell this is going to be funny and tragic at the same time.
The story begins on the dirty, smoky, crowded, noisy Lower East Side of Manhattan in the days before the car. Sarah Smolensky slaves away, as do her sisters, so that her “scholar” father is free to read the holy book. Their mother? She slaves too. They want take in a boarder to help pay the bills, but no, they can’t do that, the scholar in their home needs a room for his books. Take a job? How dare you expect a Rabbi to work! You’d think his wife would say “work, or you eat last” but that doesn’t happen either, she always serves him first. But don’t blame this lazy, callous husband and father. Back in the old country, his wife was taught to put up with it.
As the story progresses (or goes downhill, depending on how you look at it) her sisters marry lousy men, Sarah moves out on her own, enrolls in school, her mother gets sick and dies because she can’t afford a doctor. Sarah goes to an upstate college, becomes a new person, and in the meantime, her father marries a gold-digger. It ends well for Sarah, terribly for her family. But there are funny parts, like the one where her landlady yells “no, I won’t rent to students, they keep the lights on too long to read and waste electricity!” Then Sarah gets to college, and she’s shocked by the clean air; she’d never experienced anything but pollution (this was discussed in Supreme City). As for the boring college meals, they’re a luxury compared to her previous diet of bread and herring.
My problem with this book is that the last chapter should’ve been extended. When she returns to the city as a schoolteacher, you really get the feeling that this is a triumph. She has a steady paycheck, a decent room, and she can afford to dress well. Everything from here on is a breath of fresh air to her. It gets funny when she tries to get her students to pronounce the words right; they call a pearl a “poil” and to drive her nuts, they pronounce the word oil as “earl.” Unlike the teachers of today, there’s no trip to the bar after work, women in those days couldn’t drink in bars anyway. At least not the “respectable” ones who come up from the slums.
I hadn’t heard of this book until recently. The author Anzia Yezierska was born in Poland in 1885, moved to New York City as a child, spent time in San Francisco as a social worker, wrote lots of stories with rags-to-riches themes. Hollywood studios took interest in her stories, one of them made it to the screen. But most of her income was from college fellowships, or later the WPS writing program. By the 1960’s, it was mostly the feminists who were interested in her work, as part of the women’s studies programs that were sprouting up at the time.
As a Jewish American, I was always taught that we were the model minority, always free of problems, and any mention of less-successful Jews was hushed up. This book kind of un-hushes a lot of problems that Jewish immigrant families had. There were many Lower East Side families destroyed by poverty, and many of them didn’t do well. The whole stereotype of the “smart Jew” is just that, a stereotype. At the time Bread Givers takes place, Jewish immigrants scored very low on IQ tests, and very few went to college. My grandmother’s family believed in education and hard work, but there were some dysfunctional families too. Bread Givers is just that; a dysfunctional religious Jewish family whose success (aside from that of the protagonist) is still a generation ahead of them.