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Bread Givers | Study Guide

Anzia Yezierska

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Bread Givers | Book 1, Chapter 1 : Hester Street (Hester Street) | Summary



In the first chapter the protagonist and narrator, Sara Smolinsky, is 10 years old. The family is completely reliant on her three older sisters to pay the bills. The eldest, Bessie Smolinsky, has a job, and the younger sisters Mashah Smolinsky and Fania Smolinsky are looking for work. Mashah is the most beautiful and puts a lot of energy into keeping herself looking nice. As a result, she doesn't seem to notice the family's troubles and is often called "empty-head." Sara's mother enters and scolds Sara for wasting the potato peelings, so Sara goes to collect coal as an apology.

Sara's father comes home and tells his wife, Shenah Smolinsky, not to bother him with her worries about money. Then he tells the family a story with a moral about the reward of heaven waiting for those living in poverty. Though momentarily chastised, Shenah asks Sara's father, Reb Smolinsky, what he will do if all of his beloved books are thrown out on the street because they cannot pay rent. This catches Reb Smolinsky's attention, and he agrees to move his books out of their front room so that they may take in boarders.

The landlady comes demanding rent, and she becomes aggressive with Reb Smolinsky and steps on his Torah. He hits her and the police are called to take him away. Sara wants to earn money to help the family, so she goes out to peddle herring that she gets from Mukmenkeh, an old woman who is a friend of the family. She is very proud of the 25¢ she manages to make.


From this first chapter Sara is acutely aware of the family's poverty. She is only 10 years old, but she sees how heavy the burden of being the family's only earner is on her sister Bessie. It is also clear she has more spirit and drive than her sisters, who give up and come home dispirited when they can't find jobs at any of the shops. Though she hates the job, Sara goes hunting through used coal for unburnt pieces. She also comes up with the idea to peddle herring at a marked-up price in order to earn a little money. These are little hints at Sara's personality and her entrepreneurial spirit.

Sara's perception of her father is primarily negative. Her descriptions of him suggest she dislikes him but is too young to completely articulate why. She notices things a child would notice, such as the way he always gets to eat the good parts of their food and leaves none for the children or her mother. This kind of observation builds resentment in Sara toward her father. She also relates the story of how her father wouldn't let her mother bring practical things like beds and dishes to America, promising her golden dishes and a land of milk and honey. Sara, as a girl in the house, understands the practical needs of day-to-day life in a way her father seems completely oblivious to. This episode with her father also gives her a slight awareness of the ignorance beneath her father's lofty and studious facade.

Sara also observes some anti-immigrant and prejudiced behavior in this first chapter. The landlady's attitude toward the family when she comes to collect rent and they can't pay is that they are somehow lower and less human than she is. The landlady is likely an immigrant herself though a more successful one who does not hesitate to look down on those who have come to the United States after her. She calls them all "dirty immigrants" and calls Sara's father (though with a ring of truth) a "dirty do-nothing." Sara observes and internalizes this behavior at a young age, and her perception of the landlady is unflattering as a result.

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