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Immigrant Story: The Value of Anzia Yezierska’s ‘Bread Givers’

At New York’s Tenement Museum, panelists discussed the still-relevant meaning of Yezierska’s novel about an immigrant Jewish family on the Lower East Side

Erika Dreifus
December 10, 2015

“‘There wasn’t anybody who didn’t know Anzia Yezierska,’ commented a woman recently of the 1920s. Today, there is hardly anyone who does.”

So wrote historian Alice Kessler-Harris in her 1975 introduction to Yezierska’s Bread Givers, a novel about Jewish immigrant life on the Lower East Side, first published in 1925. If, 40 years ago, ignorance toward the European-born Yezierska and her novel had prevailed, Wednesday evening’s talk at New York’s Tenement Museum suggested the extent to which awareness of Yezierska, her novel, and protagonist Sara Smolinsky has since been restored—to widespread appreciation.

Kessler-Harris spoke at the program, billed as “Bread Givers: 90 Years Later,” and co-sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Archive. She described how, while conducting dissertation research in Jewish immigrant and labor history at the New York Public Library in the 1960s, she discovered Yezierska’s work and avidly read it all.

Citing her own immigrant experience (she was born in England in 1941), Kessler-Harris recalled that in the middle of her historical research, “which was perforce in those days about men, not about women…[Yezierska’s] books hit me, they resonated, with a force that nothing else that I was reading” did. She asked a librarian how much it might cost to reproduce the text of Bread Givers. Fifty-seven dollars (and 20 cents) and an offprint later, Kessler-Harris was a woman with a mission.

For about five years, Kessler-Harris, who said she “literally carried [the book] around with me,” tried to interest publishers and editors into re-issuing Bread Givers. But the book was deemed too sentimental, too melodramatic, too filled with “all that Yiddish stuff.” It was not until she met Karen Braziller—herself a child of immigrants—that Kessler-Harris found another champion: Braziller’s father-in-law, publisher George Braziller, who agreed to re-release the novel.

Kessler-Harris had anticipated that Bread Givers “would appeal to Jewish audiences, and lo and behold, it started to appeal to everyone else.” She realized that themes that had resonated so profoundly for her—a woman’s experience of acculturation; harsh immigrant poverty; the centrality of family; the tensions embedded in negotiating self, family, and culture—hit equally emotional chords in communities beyond her own.

That point was reinforced in many of the remarks from Kessler-Harris’s co-panelists at the Tenement Museum, including columnist and editor Anna Holmes; Nisha Agarwal, the Commissioner for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; Margaret Chin, a sociologist at Hunter College; and Linda Sarsour, the Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York. On this evening, then, the resonance of Bread Givers as feminist novel, and an immigrant one, superseded the book’s Jewishness.

Which reflects a larger reality about the book’s reach. If some—like Kessler-Harris or, for that matter, me—may have encountered Bread Givers through Jewishly-focused research or coursework, students of varied backgrounds are now reading it, and far earlier than we did. Also present last evening was Shahzia Priani-Mellstrom, a teacher at Brooklyn International High School. Before the panelists offered their remarks, Priani-Mellstrom explained that she assigns Bread Givers to her twelfth-graders (a sizable sampling of whom were in attendance), and how these young people, recent immigrants of varied origins themselves, connect to the book, and to Yezierska’s Sara, in particular.

More than one commentator noted that in the current climate—with immigrants, refugees, and fear much in the news—there was something even more meaningful about the gathering at the Tenement Museum and the celebration of this book. I agree.

Erika Dreifus is a writer and editor in New York and the author of Quiet Americans: Stories. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter, where she tweets on “matters bookish and/or Jewish.”