Literature Study GuidesBread GiversBook 3 Chapter 18 Summary

Bread Givers | Study Guide

Anzia Yezierska

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Bread Givers | Book 3, Chapter 18 : The New World (Death in Hester Street) | Summary

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Summary

Sara Smolinsky prepares to go home for the first time in six years. Her parents have moved back to Hester Street, and she goes to the address she has for them. Standing outside the door, she overhears her mother and father quarrelling. Her mother is sick and begging Reb Smolinsky to stay with her, but the reb insists on going to the synagogue. Sara waits for her father to leave and then rushes to her mother who looks wasted and sick. Shenah Smolinsky tells Sara she is dying. Sara's three sisters all arrive, and they all comfort one another and their mother. Some time later Sara's father returns and argues with his wife, who gives him a hard time for going upstairs to get his meals from the widow Feinstein. The doctor comes and tells the sisters that their mother must have her foot amputated immediately, or she will get blood poisoning and die. Shenah refuses the surgery, insisting that she is getting better.

Shortly thereafter Shenah passes away, leaving her family grieving. Neighbors and acquaintances come and go, weeping and begging Shenah's forgiveness. The undertaker comes and rends Reb Smolinsky and Sara's sisters' clothing according to ritual tradition, but Sara refuses to let him cut her new suit. All of the mourners look at her in condemnation and call her "Americanerin." The coffin is carried to the hearse and everyone waits to be taken to the cemetery.

Analysis

The foreshadowing of an earlier chapter comes to fruition in Chapter 18. Sara returns home to find her mother dying and realizes she put off visiting her mother for too long. Sara's claim that she is young and will have time to visit her family after she completes her studies did not consider the fact that her parents are not young and may not have as much time left. Her mother's death is a time of shared grieving and a reunion for all of the sisters.

Before Shenah dies Sara's father seems somewhat unconcerned about his wife's illness or her potential death. He leaves for synagogue despite her begging him to stay with her. He has also been making a connection with the upstairs widowed neighbor, who has been cooking his meals since his wife became too sick. Reb Smolinsky senses his wife might be leaving him soon, and instead of taking care of her, he sets about lining up his next caretaker. As a man of the Old World, he sees the role of his wife as being that of taking care of his every need. Faced with the prospect of losing the person who has been caring for him, he reacts practically (and coldheartedly) in creating himself a backup plan with the widowed neighbor. When Shenah does pass away, Reb Smolinsky momentarily shows real sorrow and remorse as he "crumpled into a heap." However, when he laments his wife's passing, he also laments the things she can no longer do for him, such as his washing and cooking. His sorrow is self-centered to the last, as he cries, "who'll take care of me now?"

Sara, though deeply grieving for her mother, also remains practical to the end. She refuses to let the undertaker tear or cut her clothes, as the other family members do according to tradition. She is proud of her new station as a teacher, and her clothes are the first real suit she bought for herself in her new life, so she cannot bear to ruin it. She realizes her mother would not ask this of her, as her mother was proud of her becoming a teacher. But those around Sara call her a "heart of stone," seeing her new "American" ways as being cold and unfeeling. Sara fights a continuous battle to separate herself from the old traditions which she experiences as rigid and controlling and remaking herself into an independent and modern American woman. However, Sara is profoundly connected to her family and the traditions she was raised in, and much of her journey revolves around her reconciling herself with occupying a place between the two worlds.

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