The Depiction of Inner Struggles in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers and Hungry Hearts

Jewish novels in English became popular and widely read in America during the twentieth century. They attracted the attention of a number of eminent critics mainly because of the
fact that the authors of those novels have been immigrants. With the rise of keen interest in immigrant literature, Jewish novels have also demanded critical interpretations and appreciations.
No wonder Anzia Yezierska’s works have become interesting works of art lending themselves too many levels of critical interpretations. Yezierska has proved herself as a master craftsman capable of discussing mind-boggling issues from a psychological perspective. She has become a representative writer of Jewish fiction which is only a century old.

Russian born Jewish American novelist and short story writer Anzia Yezierska was born in Plinsk, a Russian Polish village near Warsaw in 1881. Her father was a Talmudic scholar, and the large family lived on the money her mother made from peddling goods, as well as on contributions from neighbours, who honoured the way the family supported their studious and holy father.

Yezierska and her family immigrated to New York City around 1890. Yezierska published her first story in 1915, and she began receiving wide recognition for her writing in 1919. She published her first novel, Salome of the Tenements, in 1923. In each of her books, Yezierska worked to recreate the feelings of the immigrant girl she had once been, trying to break away from the oppressive strictures of her religion and make a place for herself in a new land.

It is a historical fact that the Jewish community was dispersed to different parts of the world. Now Jews live in almost all the nations of the world. The third class treatment, the suppression and the subjugation has led the Jewish community to migrate to America from East European countries. The suppressive measures to which the Jews were subjected in Russia in the end of the nineteenth century were the cause for a wave of migration to America. A free nation with a new free culture made her realize her inner self and express it in writing. In a Jewish family a woman was treated with secondary importance. Education was encouraged for the male members of the family. She rebelled against this tendency. Education was permitted for a woman up to a level only to enable her to read the religious text. She used to oppose the orthodox structure of her religion. She also opposed her father’s way of living for he led his life without earning for himself or his family. She was rebellious towards all these practices. When her family migrated to America she felt liberated to express her feelings. She felt that she was in a free nation. She got a scholarship to pursue her studies. She was free to reject even her husband. She had the freedom to pursue her profession and grow as her wished in the new country.

Yezierska also recalled the conditions she had grown up in by repeatedly echoing the tumultuous relationship she had with her father, whom she respected for his holiness but resented for his complete rejection of her work. She continued to revisit the distance between her and her father in her books, even as critical response dimmed and friends begged her to find something new to write about. Yezierska got the opportunity to pursue her study. She took up a part time job to support herself. The nature of the American free society impressed her. All these factors paved the way for her to become a writer. That was the easiest mode of relieving herself from her mental suppression. In 1920 she published The Hungry Hearts. It is her first collection of short stories. It describes a Jewish woman’s struggle to uplift herself personally, in family life and in social life. It revolves around life in the Lower East Side ghetto of New York City. Also, one of her novels Bread Givers which is considered to be her masterpiece, is called an autobiographical novel. It mainly deals with how a woman is oppressed in a family.

The Jews are a community who would strive hard and turn any situation to their favour. At least they would involve themselves in the process of trying hard to achieve the goal till the end. A the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche rightly said

The Jews, however, are, beyond all doubt, the strongest, toughest, and purest race at present living in Europe; they know how to succeed even under the worst conditions (in fact better than under favourable ones) by means of virtues of some sort, which one would like nowadays to label as vices-owing, above all, to a resolute faith which does not need to be ashamed before ‘modern idea...

It is certain that the Jew, if he desired-or if they were driven to it, as the antisemites seem to wish-could now have the ascendancy, nay, literally the supremacy, over Europe; that they are not working or planning for that end is equally sure... The resourcefulness of the modern Jews, both in mind and soul, is extraordinary.... (192)

Anzia Yezierska has expressed her own longings and suppressed desires through various characters, incidents, and episodes in her works. A parallel reading of her own biography and her works like Bread Givers and Hungry Hearts will reveal that as far as Anzia Yezierska is concerned her works of art have become a convenient excuse for her to express her own likes and dislikes, happy and unhappy incidents and feelings and failures in life. Thus a careful scrutiny and analysis of her short stories and novels would provide the critic with ample evidence to have a peep into her own inner struggles and mental agony. In the following pages a sincere attempt is made to dig out the various episodes and incidents in Anzia Yezierska’s works which exhibits psychic agony and the inner struggle of Anzia Yezierska.

The term ‘diaspora’ comes from a Greek verb which means ‘to sow, to scatter’. Diaspora refers to the dispersed population anywhere in the world. The diaspora faces different kinds of problems. In general, diaspora in any country attracts the wrath of the local population and there is no dearth of example for this fact. Against this backdrop women folk are the double marginalized in any known race or nationality. There is ample evidence for the misogynic nature of Jewish encounters with civilized American society. There is hatred against women within the family. These feelings are deep rooted and prevalent in all spheres. Sara understands it clearly in Bread Givers and says “Father in his innocent craziness to hold up the Light of the Law to his children is as tyrant more terrible that the Tsar from Russia” (Bread Givers 64-65). Reb Smolinsky says that woman is not for becoming better than men but to be a companion, supporter and not an individual. Women in all their stages attract neglect from the Jewish traditional patriarchs as “God didn’t listen to women” (9). Women cannot ask questions as their intelligence is not considered to be such that they can question the patriarchal head.

There is no complete detachment from the Jewish tradition which is seen in her characters. It is visible through her dependence on the Yiddish mixed English of Hungry Hearts. The imagery and structure of the novel illustrate that she cannot be detached from her past old Jewish tradition fully. The eagerness of the protagonists in The Fat of the Land and Bread Givers to go away from the present world order is the explicit reminder. However they are forced to take what they have renounced.

In Bread Givers, Sara’s quest for her own identity is elaborated through all her actions. To get recognized by the local people Sara searches for many things. In the course of this struggle she pays a heavy price and in return she is not able to receive the recognition for which the prize is paid. Even after leaving her house in pursuit of her elevation from others within the family and the American society, she is like an alien even in the societal institutions like the college and the work place. The identity crisis is very much alive and is portrayed by the author. Her eagerness to become a person is not achieved in the end. Identity crisis is due to the contact of two or more cultures. Now this mingling of cultures becomes as a new identity. The result is that Sara leaves her home and asserts herself educationally and economically. All these steps lead her to have an equal status with the old world father. Philippe Codde says that this is an intellectual equality which is the result of her shedding of her age old Jewish tradition. In Sara’s own words “in my rebellious youth thought I could escape by running away. And now I realized that the shadow of the burden was always following me... it wasn’t just my father, but the generations who made my father whose weight was still upon me”(68). Like Yezierska, Sara is not accepted as an immigrant Jew. In return there is an unresolved conflict. In Reny Christober’s opinion she longs for recognition. Critics differ in their opinion about the end of the novel. Alice Kessler-Harris and Carol Schoen call it reconciliation. All along she has waged a tirade war against the evil practices of the Jewish traditional set up. However in the end of the play, she sides with the same traditional forces. The Jewish immigrants try to assimilate and show them that they are one with the Americans. In the course of achieving this assimilation they are neither the traditional old world where they come from nor the new world they aspire to identify with. Magdalena J. Zaborowska aptly says

The ending destroys (Sara’s) independence by showing that she needs a man to affirm her femininity after the years of repressing and sacrificing it to free herself from the Old World and to prove her intellectual abilities in the New. In the end she loses; she is neither a Jew-she refuses to have her clothes cut at her mother’s she refuses to have her clothes cut at her mother’s funeral - nor an American - she comes back to her repressive Judaic roots through her Americanized Jewish husband, who uses her to explore his ‘heritage’. (How we found America 150)

The repression of the Jewish community is seen in different forms in Hungry Hearts and in Bread Givers. People who disperse from their community for any reason tend to show a kind of nostalgia toward their native place, people and community. In turn they come together through social gathering and write about issues which haunt and prevail among them. To support the above viewpoint all the writings of Yezierska focus on problems of the Jewish community especially people who belonged to the Lower East Side ghetto of New York. There is constant conflict, steps to integrate and assimilate into the mainstream which are seen in her writings. In the course of achieving this one would strive to cut off from the traditional old world. In this way there is old and new word conflict which is seen in her works. The coming together of multicultural people brings one more aspect to the fore that is the cultural mediation. The writer mediates with the Jewish immigrants and the American culture. An explicit example is Bread Givers. Despite its unhappy ending numerous stages in the life of a Jewish immigrant are depicted. The doubly marginalized Jewish women’s status is vividly described by Yezierska. Sara’s relationship with her father is not smooth enough. However it changes after she attains the elevation in terms of education and job against his traditional world. Reb Smolisky represents the traditional old word while Sara Smolinsky represents the new world where one tries to assimilate the new culture. Gay Wilentz a balanced critic of Anzia Yezierska, remarks that Reb Smolinsky is a pretty tyrant who sells off his daughters and respects nothing but a distorted love and a hypocritical desire for material wealth. The new world is represented by Shena Pessah in Hunger when she strives hard to come out of the shackles of tradition. She retorts against her uncle Moisheh, leaves the traditional set up and starts to live alone. This is the replica of the inner mind and longing of the author herself. Renny Christopher endorses Wilentz’s ideas saying that most critics of the novel, in particular Alice Kessler-Harris and Carol Schoen, have interpreted the ending as representing reconciliation. As per Stephen Knadler’s view the Eastern European Jewish mass migration has produced many writers who wrote autobiographical novels and short stories. Anzia Yezierska belongs to this European mass migration. Jews migrated to save themselves from the Russian pogrom and poverty. Blanche Gelfant echoes Knadler’s viewpoint regarding the mass migration of the Jewish people. The protagonist in My Own People, Sophie Sapinsky, is a young budding writer who looks for substance, time and location. However, after getting all these she could not write. But when she happens to see the pitiable situation of Hanneh Breineh and her husband Yosef she could have a feeling and yearning for her own people. Their distress forced her to write. Yezierska herself speaks through Sophie Sapinsky. In Madin Japtok’s words, “Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers describes a time span of about twenty years, presumably from the 1890s to sometime before the 1910, which roughly parallels Yezierska’s own life history”(276).

Yezierska has chosen to make Bread Givers a bridge between the old and new generations. Though she rejects the idealism of the old world, she has compassion for the status of her father as a victim of situation. She understands him once she leaves her home and faces difficulties in finding a job and pursuing her study against the will of her father and against the practice of her traditional society too. She understood that in the same way her father too under certain compulsions has led a hard life.

Hungry Hearts is yet another record of the lamentable status of the marginalized Jewish community in general and of Yezierska’s family living in the Lower East Side ghetto of New York in particular. Hungry Hearts is a collection of short stories. The characters in these short stories stand unique in portraying the inner struggles of the migrant Jewish community. The misfortunes of a Jewish lady represented by the protagonist of Hungry Hearts are depicted. A glance through the pages of the Old Testament of the Bible which formed the main part of the Jewish Vedas reveals the age old concept of giving subordinate treatment to the Jewish womenfolk who were not permitted to live as equals with men. Even in the temple of the Jews there was a separate place allotted for the women in the outer circle. This sort of tyrannical treatment of Jewish women has been repeated by the faith of Yezierska and there is ample evidence in Bread Givers to substantial the fact. The women of the family have had no role in decision making and they have not been permitted to be independent or even to educate themselves. Wings and The Miracle are records of the rebellious spirit of the women characters to represent the Jewish women folk. It can be asserted that almost every story and every novel of the artist Yezierska is an exhibition of her own suppressed desires and unfulfilled wishes in life.

In Soap and Water, the first person narrator enrols herself for a Diploma and studies for four years. She undergoes a long ordeal for four years as a student which is reminiscent of the ordeals that Yezierska faced when she left her father in pursuit of her study. To support herself. She goes to the laundry shop to do some work to earn her livelihood. Miss White Side, the dean of the college scolds her saying “Soap and Water are cheap. Anyone can be clean” (Hungry Hearts 67).

In The Fat of the Land the protagonist Hanneh Breineh suffers because of her poverty. But after her children are grown up she gets all the required comforts. However, she is not ready to stick to her new affluent life. She longs for her old ghetto life and even goes there to meet her old friend Mrs. Pelz. In real life Yezierska gets $10000 from Goldwyn Company for Hungry Hearts’ film rights. She is not impressed by the pompous life of Hollywood dream city and comes back to her Lower East Side ghetto of New York City and starts writing for her people.

In My Own People the protagonist Sophie Sapinsky is a writer. When Shmendrik gets a sweet pack, he shares it with children who are within the compound. At the same time, the ‘friendly visitor’ from charity senses it, comes there and leaves after taking a lot of his distributed sweets, raisins and grapes. Then after a while two members come there led by the ‘friendly visitor’. Though Sophie Sapinsky does not speak about anything openly she could find substance to write. This is evident from Yezierska’s real life that she works for a certain period of time in charity and reserves condemnation for their ill treatment of the economically poor people in the name of Social Betterment Society. Yezierska, an eyewitness and a victim of this mistreatment, is actually expressing her own agony and inner struggles through the various protagonists.

How I Found America is a replica of her own family. This story starts in Russia and ends in America. It is in first person narration. Her father who is a Talmudic Scholar is chanting ancient poetry from the book of Isaiah. The whole family is terrified when the Cossack enters their residence and warns of a thousand roubles fine if the Hebrew school continues to be conducted in the kitchen or in the bedroom. This incident depicts the actions of the Cossack on the common people. These situations were common during the early nineteenth century. East European countries witnessed mass migration of Jewish immigration into America. How I Found America is a monumental work of Yezierska because it recapitulates all the tragic and agonizing moments in the lives of the Jews and also in the family of Yezierska. It is a typical autobiographical work as it records the miseries and the woes of the unfortunate Jews in the concentration camps. In addition to reliving the tearful experiences of the Jews in general and of Yezierska’s family in particular, How I found America is a recollection of the artistic sequences of events leading to their decision to leave for and settle down in America. Narration of vast crowd approaching her house in order to seek the help of her father in reading out the Letter of Gedalyah Mindel and the letter describing America as a land of milk and honey and the decision of Yezierska’ family to start the journey to America, all these are explicitly revealed to the readers in How I Found America.

In The Lost Beautifulness the protagonist’s expectation is not fulfilled. The beautiful house lost its beauty and in the same way Hanneh Hayyeh also loses her peace of mind by destroying the same beauty for which she has toiled for many days. In The Free Vacation House Yezierska portrays the expectations of a poor mother and the reality. She could not find peace at home and visits some other place. However, when she returns home, she feels at home and gets peace of mind in her own house. In Free Vacation House the first person narrator, a mother of six children is urged to have a rest to avoid a nervous breakdown. She too proceeds to have the same rest however she finds it in her house. The expectation is that she needs to have peace of mind and that is the sole purpose of the organization too. However the reality proves to be different.

Many a peep into the inner conflicts, turmoil’s and struggles of the artist has been given with evidences from a number of short stories in Hungry Hearts and the novel Bread Givers. The questioning tendencies of Anzia Yezierska, the rebellious nature against the authority of the father, the highly independent attitude of a modern woman, lack of faith in religious doctrines and practices, all these have dominated the life of Anzia Yezierska and she has expressed her mental agony through incidents, episodes, characters and even through descriptions, in her short stories and in the novel Bread Givers. Jewish American fiction provides a number of opportunities for probing critics to identify diasporic elements and it exhibits the inner struggles witnessed in the psyche of the artist. Anzia Yezierska is a unique artist who has created and used her own characters to exhibit her inner agony. Besides being autobiographical by nature, the works of Anzia Yezierska have almost become a document listing out her own tears and agonies and any careful critic is able to identify and propagate them.

While summing up, one has to recall that Anzia Yezierska, an East European Jew who arrived in America at the beginning of the mass immigration in the last decades of the nineteenth century, wrote autobiographical works about New York’s Lower East Side ghetto throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Articles in popular magazines and journals repeated this glamorous fairy tale, describing how a poor immigrant who had at various times been a scrubwoman, servant, and factory worker had been instantly transformed into a great novelist and Hollywood success. She soon became the recognized mouthpiece of New York’s Jewish East Side and quickly gained a reputation as an assimilationist. Of late there has been renewed interest in Yezierska among sociologists and literary critics because of her documentation of women’s experience of immigration and her intimate relation with John Dewey, whose recently published book of rediscovered poems has made their affair public and spurred speculation about ethnic cross-fertilization in their relationship and work.

Nevertheless, for the most part Yezierska continues to be regarded as a patriotic assimilationist who wrote sincere but technically deficient short stories and novels in poor and broken English. Yezierska was in fact a keen and perceptive writer who in the form and content of her work thoroughly questioned the cultural and national narratives surrounding the making of Americans. Depicting the manner in which the ideology of these institutions affects the everyday lives of women immigrants, she blurs the neat bourgeois distinctions between public and private realms. She also draws attention to the ethnicity of her Jewish characters, highlighting, however, not their Yiddish mannerisms and expressions but their unique way of appropriating and reshaping Anglo-American culture.


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K. Antony
Research Scholar
Rani Anna Government College for Women

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