The Smolinsky family is on the verge of starvation. The older daughters,
, can’t find work, and Mashah spends what little money she has to make herself
look more beautiful. Their father,
, doesn’t work at all, spending his days
reading holy books and commandeering his daughters’ wages—his due as a Jewish
despairs over the situation, the youngest daughter,
promptly goes outside to sell herring and makes the family some money. Later, the older
girls find jobs, and Mrs. Smolinsky rents out the second room, improving the family’s
Quiet, dutiful Bessie soon falls for a young man named
and invites him
home for dinner one night. The rest of the family is excited for Bessie, but when Reb
Smolinsky finds out, he decides he can’t live without the wages Bessie brings in. Though
Berel is willing to marry Bessie without a dowry, her father says Berel must also pay for
the entire wedding and set him up in business as well. Berel refuses and storms out.
When he says Bessie should defy her crazy father and marry him at City Hall, Bessie
says she doesn’t dare. Berel promptly gets engaged to someone else, crushing Bessie’s
Mashah is the next daughter to find a romance that Reb Smolinsky considers
inappropriate. She falls in love with
, a piano player from a rich family.
Mashah’s father disapproves of the match and blackmails Jacob into staying away for
several days, breaking Mashah’s heart. When Jacob comes back to beg for forgiveness,
Mashah feels defeated enough to stand by and let her father kick Jacob out for playing
piano on the Sabbath. Reb Smolinsky also disapproves of Fania’s sweetheart, a poor poet
, and shames him away. He then arranges marriages for all three
girls, which leave them all desperately unhappy. Sara is furious with her father for what
he’s done to her sisters, but her age and gender leave her powerless.
Despite Mrs. Smolinsky’s warning, Reb Smolinsky takes all of the money he got from
Bessie’s marriage and sinks it into a grocery store that the previous owner had filled with
fake stock. Sara and Mrs. Smolinsky must again scramble for survival, and each day they
endure increasing criticism from Reb Smolinsky. One day, Sara reaches her breaking
point. She runs away from home and decides to become a teacher. She plans to live with
either Bessie or Mashah, but both have been beaten down by poverty and bad marriages.
Instead, she rents a small, dirty, private room of her own. To pay for it, Sara finds a day
job in a laundry, using her nights to study and take classes.
The life Sara has chosen is not easy. She faces discrimination for being a woman and