Immigration, Jewish American culture and literature were the topics of discussion in the first class of the Strand A section of our course. Photographs of immigrants, immigrant conditions on board the ships and immigrants passing through Ellis Island’s quarantine provided a starting point for our discussion.
Figure 2 & 3: Photograph of immigrants on board ship and Ellis Island quarantine. Blackboard Lecture Slides.
The photographs in Figure 2 & 3 visually convey the hardship and degradation of immigration that is conveyed verbally through the words of Anzia Yezierska in Bread Givers.
Although Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky is classed as the primary Yiddish novel in America, I think Yezierska’s masterpiece is more deserving of the title. This is not simply because it provides a first-hand, personal observation of an immigrants lifestyle in the Lower East Side of New York from a semi-autobiographical, Jewish perspective, but also because of the reciprocal interplay of language. The languages shift from Yiddish to English is symptomatic of the process of progressive assimilation. The language in the novel is profoundly Jewish, even though it is written in English. Yezierska’s ability to express the rhythms of Yiddish syntax surpasses Jewish American novelists such as Bernard Malamud and Henry Roth. Yezierska’s first generation English is apparent from the domination of her mame-loshn (mother tongue) on her English sentence structure.
The characters in Bread Givers give the reader a taste of the language from the Yiddish inflection they speak with, but the narrative voice is also at times expressed with a Yiddish lilt. One example of this is when Sara says “exchange with them my thoughts, break with them bread at their tables” (…). Yezierska’s positioning of “with them” prior to the noun instead of after it may not only lead to syntactic ambiguity, but it also demonstrates the interaction of bilingualism on her writing.
Consequently, despite the numerous typographical errors littering the novel that the publishers claim have been amended, Bread Givers is a superb text recounting the immigrant experience with an emotionally, evocative style. It immerses its reader in the world of Sara’s struggles and her acclimatization to her harsh, foreign milieu.
Lazarus, Emma. “The New Colossus.” Xerox.
Yezierska, Anna. Bread Givers. New York: Peresa Books, 1999. Print.
Progressive Era (1890-1920)