Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers and Assimilation of Jews
An entire chapter of Eric Liu’s memoir, The Accidental Asian, is founded on the supposition that Jews today serve as a metaphor for assimilation into American culture. According to Liu, this is due to the ease with which Jews have been able to assimilate. However, the progress that Jews have made in embracing and affecting America has been gradual rather than instantaneous, as evidenced by the character Sara Smolensky in Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers. Sara is not the symbol of an assimilated Jew, but instead represents a period of transition between complete assimilation into American identity and complete dissimilation from her Jewish and Polish heritage, neither of which she can fully accomplish. Her identity was both “made” and “unmade” by her interaction with America, and she is left struggling for a new self that can interweave her ancestral past and her American present.
Perhaps the best example of Sara’s deviation from her Jewish heritage and her attempt to assimilate was her refusal to allow the undertaker to tear her suit during her mother’s funeral service. The clothing that she wears is a symbol to her of wealth and of being an American. For Sara the ripping of her clothing had become an “empty symbol,” a cultural construction with only symbolic meaning that could help to identify her ethnicity, and does not serve any logical purpose. After being distanced from her family and immersed in American culture for so long, she no longer understands the purpose of the action, and posits verily that “Tearing [her only suit] wouldn’t bring Mother back to life again” (Yezierska 255). This represents a clear distinction between voluntary culture and natural relationships, as suggested by Werner Sollors in his Foreword to Theories of American Ethnicity. Sara’s willing dedication to her American identity, as represented by her clothing, is contrasted with the blood relationship she has with her mother, and by extension her actions separate her from her entire ancestry and ethnicity. Denounced for her refusal to comply with the traditions of her culture, and disdainfully called an “Americanerin,” Sara experiences the social death that Sollors describes, a result of her cultural relationships having become “mutually antagonistic” (xx). In this scene she temporarily ceases to be Jewish and becomes to her people and to her family merely a female American. This schism is paralleled by a more subtle contrast at the conclusion of the same chapter that should be noted, when Sara hears the poverty stricken cries that “Charity saves you from death” (256)! This statement of course cannot be literally true, but displays a further contrast between the voluntary and the natural on a more literal level: voluntary generosity versus natural inevitable death.
Sara is further distanced from her ethnicity through her resistance to the patriarchal doctrines of...