Themes and Meanings
Yezierska does not romanticize the poverty of Hester Street, but she does make apparent the wisdom of the ages used to make conditions there tolerable. As Mr. Smolinsky says, “The God that feeds the worms under the stone, and the fishes in the sea, will he not feed us?” In trying to express both the beauty of Jewish culture and its incompatibility with early twentieth century urban life, Yezierska shows that Sara’s success in meeting modern challenges is founded upon her realism.
While following the traditions of ritual law, Mr. Smolinsky’s opportunism illustrates the inherent hypocrisy of having one foot in the Old World and the other in the New: “I want to get into some quick money-making thing that will not take up too many hours a day, so I could get most of my time for learning.” Not wanting to disown the cultural identity which venerates scholarship but also realizing that, as a woman, she is excluded from that tradition, Sara’s ambivalence is the result of being caught between contradictory ideals. The promise of America—individual success—can turn the subordination of women under patriarchal Judaism on its ear. Essential as such self-definition is for survival, however, the loss of cultural place creates a lack which cannot be denied.
Overcoming that lack by synthesizing personal need and cultural identity is the message of Bread Givers. Sara returns to the Lower East Side as a schoolteacher, believing that she has a debt to pay to the past she once thought had no claims on her. “Once I had been elated at the thought that a man wanted me. How much more thrilling to feel that I had made my work wanted!” The rewards of love may come second to career, but it is no less important. Securely independent prior to romantic involvement, Sara uses marriage to affirm culture, instead of being destroyed by it. Sara’s engagement to a man of like background and ambition helps close the gap between herself and her culture. As her fiancé recognizes, “You and I, we are of one blood.” Together they give life to Yezierska’s hope of preserving culture without sacrificing either independence or romantic desire.