Yezierska’s writings center on Jewish immigrants, especially women, in New York City and stands in stark contrast to earlier immigrant literature that depicted seamless integration from the Jewish community. Her most popular novel,Bread Givers (1925), focuses on a young woman whose struggle for independence is hampered by her father’s old-world rabbinical sexism and America’s patriarchal attitudes.
Anzia Yezierska was probably about thirteen years old when her large family immigrated to the United States from Poland during the early 1890’s. The family had been subject to harsh anti-Semitism in Poland, and the move to the Jewish ghettos of Manhattan’s lower East Side in New York City was really a step forward, if a meager one. As was customary for immigrants at the time, the family Anglicized its name, and the young woman became Harriet (Hattie) Meyer, an identity she would later reject, changing back to Anzia Yezierska in her late twenties. Her father followed Jewish traditions, encouraging his sons toward education but requiring his daughters to work and support the family. Like many immigrant girls and women, Anzia worked in sweatshops, but, unlike many, she left home at the age of seventeen and attended night school and college.
Yezierska was drawn to writing, and she focused on the squalor and struggles of immigrant life. She often depicted the efforts of Jewish women to find self-identity in New York City, but her first short story was not published until 1915, as publishers were wary of such subject matter. Many of her works are semiautobiographical, including Bread Givers (1925) and Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950). By far, Bread Givers is considered her most accessible and is her most studied work. Yezierska’s protagonists often confront paternalistic snobbery with the stubborn insistence that they can be more than menial houseworkers. They experience poverty and squalor in the ghettos and struggle to achieve an American identity without erasing their pasts or denying their womanhood.
Stories such as these proved to be the forerunners of immigrant stories to follow. They contrasted sharply with previous depictions of Jewish immigrant life published by the likes of
Schoen, Carol. Anzia Yezierska. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Wirth-Nesher, Hana. Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers. 1925. Reprint. New York: Persea Books, 2003.
New York City
Religion as a push-pull factor
Russian and Soviet immigrants
World War I