Sara Smolinksy is the narrator and the main character in Bread Givers. From a young age she shows a desire for independence and a fascination with American culture. The youngest of four sisters, she works to help support her family as a child, first peddling herring, and later in a factory. Sara chafes at her father's dictatorial way of running the family and longs to be free of his preaching and his old-fashioned ways. She shows her strong will and her determined spirit by leaving home and getting an education. Sara is mostly uninterested in men or traditional suitors, and though she develops crushes a few times, reality creeps in and destroys her hopes. As the novel develops, Sara is caught between Americanization and the old ways of her family as she comes to live her own life apart from them.
Reb Smolinksy, Sara's father, is an extremely traditional patriarch and parent. He follows the old beliefs that his community brought from their Polish Jewish community and views his wife and daughters as property, subject utterly to his rule. He is impulsive and not very wise in his decision making, taking things at face value and frequently being swindled as a result. He also tends to see what he wants to see rather than the true nature of a person or situation. He has no qualms about basically selling off his daughters into marriage, and he squanders what money he makes from those bargains. He resists becoming "Americanized" as it is seems antithetical, or in opposition, to his beliefs, and prefers to stick to the old, familiar attitudes and culture from Europe.
Shenah Smolinsky is a middle-aged mother of four daughters, and she describes herself as having been a beauty back when Reb Smolinsky courted her in Poland. Since then anxiety and hardship have aged her quickly, and she no longer seems to have any of her earlier beauty. She quarrels frequently with her husband, who does not seem to understand or care that bills must be paid. She is the emotional "burden bearer" of the family, worrying about how they will make ends meet and what kind of life they are making for their daughters. Shenah is in many ways much more intelligent and worldly than her husband, and the mistakes he makes are often the result of his refusal to consult with Shenah for her opinion or advice.
Fania Smolinsky is one of Sara Smolinsky's older sisters. Fania falls in love with poet Morris Lipkin and displays a romantic side in her attachment to him. When she marries Abe Schmukler at her father's insistence, she displays a lack of willpower in conceding to her father's demands when her heart is really elsewhere.
Mashah Smolinsky is often called the "empty-head" because of her seeming vanity and self-centered nature. However, it is unclear whether or not Mashah is truly empty-headed or whether her focus on small vanities and comforts is perhaps a defense mechanism to help her escape from the desperate poverty in which she lives. She is the beautiful one in the family and often attracts male attention. She likes the attention generally, but she doesn't return any of it until she meets Jacob Novak. Once Mashah is in love, she becomes much more focused and aware of what is going on around her, and she shows everyone she is not as empty-headed as they assumed. Like her sister Fania Smolinsky, Mashah gives in to her father's demands and marries the man he chooses for her despite her heart belonging to someone else, and she suffers greatly from the decision.
Bessie Smolinsky, called the "burden bearer" of the family, is the eldest sister and the main wage-earner. She looks older than she is because of the stress of providing for the family. Bessie seems to be a simple, steady woman. When she finds a man she likes, she borrows Mashah Smolinsky's best dress to receive him for tea in hopes he might marry her and help her escape from her father and the family. Before this event, she shows no interest in clothes or her looks, and all her energy goes into supporting the family. But her later acquiescence to marriage with Zalmon is the result of her father slowly crushing her will until she will do anything to escape the house.