Yezierska’s Works and Our Times
The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find. (Whitman, “Untold” 370)
German philosopher Friedrich Engels was one of the first to link the emergence of private property systems and hierarchy with the oppression of women in his 1884 work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Under a hierarchization in which women were subordinate to males, and private property was created and inequitably held, the need to control the reproduction of women arose in order to assure that a man’s property would be passed to his biological heirs. He asserts that “observed” physiological differences legitimized the arrangement; by citing women’s “obvious” physical and intellectual inferiorities, “ordered” paternal control of women was only “logical” (737).
Anzia, despite her awareness of Engelian philosophy, was enduringly influenced by her longing to be accepted and loved like her peers. She once lamented, “It was Spring in the air. Other girls were enjoying themselves with their young men. The whole world was alive” (Henriksen 24, emphasis added). Despite her apprehension, Anzia’s life is marked by the crests of voluntary acceptance, then renouncement, of several traditionally feminine roles. After college, she taught school for a while, but as her peers and supervisors became aware of her blatant disinterest in the traditional lady’s subjects, she was gradually marginalized to the lowest-paying jobs.
Anzia married twice and had two affairs; in each, love decayed into loathing. Her struggles to retain her hope in romanticism are most eloquently unveiled by examining the pre-marriage letters she wrote to Arnold Levitas, her soon-to-be second husband. In one: “One of the beautiful things about friendship is the free boundless way in which we give and take from one another. I do not hesitate asking you to help me . . .” (32). In another: “If I could only tell you how I love you! How my spirit follows you all over wherever you go . . . how can I become your real friend, your true comrade! . . . the more intimately I know you, the more deeply I love you” (33). Although the complexities of her life wore her down, she continued to hold fast to her hopes: “I came to school, but I broke down. I couldn’t teach. I don’t know what’s the matter with me, but I crave to be alone—just to be alone . . . but step in for a little while on Friday” (44).
Between mid-1911, when she authored the love letters, married Arnold and had her only child, and mid-1912, Anzia’s faith in matrimony evaporated. Between mid-1912 and 1915 she vented her suffering through a personal journal. Its pages increasingly filled with the bitter disillusionment we have all felt. In 1912 she expressed her anger: “How little people can tell from the outside of a man’s life the sort of husband he is at home. Many a man who is considered the blessing of the community . . . a free and generous gentleman in all social circles, may be stingy as a miser at home” (58).
She longed for what she had relinquished: “Women who have known the independence of earning their own living before marriage . . . feel most poignantly the humiliation they have to live through while being ‘supported.’ . . . if there was some way out, they would all rush back . . . but they cannot go back” (58). She resented her husband’s freedom: “A man can always put on his hat and go . . . [but] the massed social pressure of the entire world is against the mother who wants to get away from her place of bondage” (60). And on the subject of motherhood: “By the time [women] realize the full meaning of being ‘supported,’ they have a baby or two to care for. A baby is like the ball and chain of the prisoner that keeps [her or] him bound to [her or] his cell” (58). Her daughter correctly surmises Anzia’s anguish at this point: “she was . . . furious at herself for having deliberately walked into the trap” (59).
Anzia’s fictive prose is marked by the same ambivalence that characterized her life. In her 1919 short story, “The Fat of the Land” (for which she won “Best Short Story of 1919” in 1920) , the principal female is sacrilegious, self-obsessed and emotionally stunted. The plot, revolving around twenty years of dull, starvation-laden characters, is weak at best. Yet this story is enriched with meticulous descriptions and images of the Jewess’ futile attempts to resolve the elemental conflicts between prescribed roles and individual expectations that invariably culminate in disillusionment. Through this story, a style arises which became Anzia’s hallmark: the use of painful detail to describe and decry what she believed was the cancer manifested by the “other” rationality marking American society. Her symbols rely on the ethnic, gendered materialism with which she is intimately familiar: graphic images that describe the physical, emotional and spiritual starvation of Jewish women as compared to the favoritism afforded Jewish men.
In Bread Givers, her 1925 book, Anzia arguably provides her most poignant performance through Sara Smolinsky, her protagonist, and the impoverished family from which she originates. The story follows Sara from the age of ten to her early twenties; through her eyes, we confront intense patriarchal sexism and repression under guise of Jewish tradition. Three dozen paragraphs into the first chapter, Sara reminisces about the family’s immigration to America before which Father made the women leave their cherished possessions to make room for his books. She remembers Mother helplessly begging to bring even one cooking pot and the two feather beds she inherited from her grandmother. This leads Sara to bitterly reflect: “Of course . . . if God had given Mother a son, Father would have permitted a man child to share with him the best room in the house. A boy could say prayers after his father’s death—that kept the father’s soul alive for ever” (9).
During the same scene, Sara reflects on the position of women: “The prayers of his daughters didn’t count because God didn’t listen to women. Heaven and the next world were only for men. Women could get into heaven because they were wives and daughters of men . . . [and then only to] wait on them there” (9-10). True to custom, Sara watches each of her three sisters’ relinquish her “true love,” and her dreams, to obey the irrational and selfish wishes of Father to ensure her place in the hereafter. Exasperated, Sara finds it irreconcilable that doing the “right thing” necessitates such brutal sacrifice.
Mother, representing the traditional Jewess, fares worse. She works nonstop morning till night of each day, almost comedically “fixing” Father’s blunders and smoothing feelings he heedlessly tramples. After years of faithful and productive service, the toll of limitless sacrificing climaxes in her figurative starvation via literal death. One day prior, Father comes to her bedside, affectionately smoothes her hair and speaks tenderly to her. “The touch of his hand was like magic,” Sara observes, “Her whole face softened. A beautiful look came into her eyes as she gazed at Father, undying worship on her face” (248). Mother blossoms under the attention she is literally starving to receive, but he turns from her and beseeches the doctor, “Save me my wife! . . . Since she’s sick my house is in ruin. I have to go for a drop of soup to the neighbor. No one looks after me” (249). In a caustic twist, within one month of Mother’s death Father marries the woman “kind” enough to provide his nourishment while Mother suffered and died.
Sara, our heroine, rebels all the way through the story and fights to free herself from predestined oppression. She refuses to marry, sends herself to school, holds fast to her hopes, graduates from college and secures a satisfactory job as a teacher. Her life, however, is marked with increasing torment and guilt as she realizes the fulfillment of her emancipatory dreams. Her mother’s death, the sight of the starving in the streets, her sisters’ fates, being an outcast among her people, the revocation of her religion, her father’s suffering, her guilt in success— and the helplessness she feels against all of these – all press heavily upon the weakening Sara Smolinsky. She struggles against an ideal she did not intend to internalize, one that bestowed upon her the responsibility for the happiness of every member of the rest of the world at her own expense. She ultimately accepts her sisters’ equivalence of her autonomous endeavors with her personification of Father’s selfishness.
Her loneliness confirms her suspicions of her permanent outcast status until she becomes involved with Hugo Seelig, the principal of the school at which she is employed. In the three months following their first personal conversation, Sara finds her only, albeit brief, happiness. She discovers that Hugo, like herself, is a Jewish immigrant from the “old country.” He seems all Sara might wish in a companion. After their first conversation, she says, “My heart rejoiced! I stood looking at his chair feeling him still in the room for hours after, and my last feeling as I closed my eyes was: I’m no longer alone. I’m no longer alone!” (279).
Alone is certainly not how Sara ends up. In an acidic climax, all for which Sara has dreamed surrenders to her guilt. Sara, in a moment of intense self-reproach, submits to the traditional elements of her ambivalent life; she invites her father to come and live with her. The room “all her own” that she rented, her paradise “rich and fragrant with unutterable beauty” is transformed into a new version of her childhood prison; the cycle begins anew and she exits, arm-in-arm with Hugo, about whom the reader receives an ominous warning in the final scene when he asks Sara’s father to be his teacher (241).