The characters in Bread Givers, from coarse pushcart clothing to their speech peppered with Yiddish expressions, are faithfully modeled upon the real immigrants of Yezierska’s own acquaintance. Some, such as Zalmon the fish peddler, are literary memorials to the people whom Yezierska cherished for their inspiration. Other characters, such as Sara and Mr. Smolinsky, replicate the struggle that Yezierska herself experienced between the demands of traditional culture and the opportunities of contemporary American society. The Smolinsky family illustrates the gender arrangements which constrained Yezierska, even as she celebrated the culture which created them.
Many of the details of Yezierska’s life coincide with those of her character, Sara Smolinsky (both are children of poor, Jewish immigrants, both helped support their families while still children, and both sacrificed much to earn an education). Yet as a literary character, Sara is able to act out conflicts in a manner both dramatic and satisfying. Sara is a model of resourcefulness at fighting the hostile influences of family and culture. As a child, Sara’s character is largely formed by reacting to the example set by her three older sisters—Bessie, Masha, and Fania.
Like their mother, the three older girls do not question female submission. Mrs. Smolinsky, once the petted daughter of well-to-do parents in a Polish shtetl, considers herself blessed by the honor of marriage to Mr. Smolinsky, a highly esteemed scholar. In Poland, Mr. Smolinsky’s devotion to study is a sign of the inherited wealth which supports it. Even when financial reverses force them to emigrate and face great changes, Mrs. Smolinsky still believes in her husband’s godliness and her responsibility to enable him to study. She wavers only when Mr. Smolinsky, taking matters into his own hands, makes their financial situation worse. Even though he gives much of the women’s earning...
(The entire section is 799 words.)