Hester Street, heart of Jewish immigrant life on New York’s Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, with its blend of poverty, dirt, and religious fervor, is the colorful milieu of Sara Smolinsky, Bread Givers’ main character. The youngest of four daughters born to a Polish Judaic scholar and his wife, Sara personifies the clash between the demands of tradition and the beckoning opportunities of a new land— America.
Sara’s first-person narration recollects those incidents of her childhood and young adult life which shape her ambition. Sara’s journey to independence is obstructed by the conditions of poverty and the traditional expectations of Jewish women, yet she fights the often bitter battle to, as she says, “make myself for a person,” with determination. At age ten, she earns money by peddling herring in the street. Along with the sweatshop earnings of her three older sisters and her mother, who takes in boarders, Sara shares the burden of her father’s household. The contrast between the apparent luxury of Mr. Smolinsky’s time, spent in prayer, spiritual contemplation, and religious study, and the unending toil which falls to the women, is decreed by the holy law of the Torah. As Mr. Smolinsky is quick to remind his family, “women get into heaven because they were the wives and daughters of men. Women had no brains for the study of God’s Torah, but they could be the servants of men who studied the Torah.”
As she sees her sisters bargained away into arranged marriages which make Mr. Smolinsky’s reputation as a professional matchmaker, Sara’s will hardens against him...
(The entire section is 670 words.)