Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic
MLA

Bibliography

Course Hero. "Bread Givers Study Guide." Course Hero. 1 Mar. 2019. Web. 19 Mar. 2019. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Bread-Givers/>.

In text

(Course Hero)

APA

Bibliography

Course Hero. (2019, March 1). Bread Givers Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved March 19, 2019, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Bread-Givers/

In text

(Course Hero, 2019)

Chicago

Bibliography

Course Hero. "Bread Givers Study Guide." March 1, 2019. Accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Bread-Givers/.

Footnote

Course Hero, "Bread Givers Study Guide," March 1, 2019, accessed March 19, 2019, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Bread-Givers/.

Bread Givers | Context

Share
Share

Jews in Eastern Europe

For centuries large Jewish communities inhabited various regions of Eastern Europe. Jewish culture, tradition, and religious life contrasted in many ways with those of the European Christians who were the majority in the entire region. However, in some cities, Jews outnumbered Christians. Many other parts of Europe, especially Western Europe, focused on assimilating Jewish communities, possibly in hopes that they would eventually convert and merge with the rest of mainstream society. But because Russia forced the Jewish communities to live only in particular designated areas under tight controls, the Jewish communities of Russia and the Polish lands in particular maintained a strong sense of their own culture and traditions with little influence from the outside. They also continued to speak and write primarily in Yiddish, a Jewish form of German, instead of adopting the local language or dialects. While the Jewish communities in much of Western Europe became more liberal and modernized, the increasingly isolated communities of Eastern Europe kept their old traditions and adhered strictly to Jewish law and traditions of daily life and belief.

During this period politics and borders in much of Russia and Northeastern Europe were shifting rapidly, and in ways often detrimental to the Jewish communities. Russia created increasingly stricter laws regarding Jewish rights. After Russia annexed parts of Poland, many Jews living in those regions suddenly found themselves subject to Russian laws and military force for much of the 19th century. Jews were forbidden to live in much of the Russian interior and in large Russian cities such as Moscow. Eventually Jews were only allowed to live in a specifically delineated, or outlined, area called the "Pale of Settlement." Then, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a wave of violent, government-encouraged riots against the Jewish people, called pogroms, spread through Russia and were followed by another wave of increased restrictions on the Jewish community as well as large-scale emigration out of the country to the United States and elsewhere. During the Russian Revolution of 1905 in which various factions unsuccessfully attempted to rise up against the tsar, there was a general view that Jewish communities were connected to the revolution and to social change, resulting in loyalists killing large numbers of them.

Because of this complex web of politics and persecution, a massive Jewish emigration occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Between the years of 1881 and 1897, approximately half a million Jews emigrated out of Eastern Europe to other European countries and Latin and North America. In the first quarter of the 20th century around 1.75 million more Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe, immigrated to the United States. A large number of Eastern European Jewish immigrants settled in New York, giving New York City the third largest Jewish population in the world and changing the image of the city forever. In Yezierska's novel Bread Givers Sara Smolinsky's family was among the Jewish immigrants who left Poland and came to New York. Driven by the myth of America's abundance and easy wealth, Reb Smolinsky, Sara's father, brings his family to Manhattan. The Smolinsky family is part of the second wave of Jewish immigrants coming to New York in the first part of the 20th century, as Sara's story begins in the 1920's.

Hester Street in the Early 20th Century

In the early part of the 20th century the nine blocks of Hester Street in lower Manhattan were home to huge numbers of primarily Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is where Sara Smolinsky's family settled upon their own arrival to the United States in Bread Givers. Hester Street is located in the Lower East Side of New York City, an area that was traditionally the home of Jewish communities, after many other ethnic groups had lived and passed through there. Around the year 1900 the Lower East Side had more than 600 people per acre, making it the most crowded of any neighborhood in the world. Most of those people lived in ramshackle tenement buildings. Many of the Jewish immigrants came specifically from Russia and the Polish lands where they had been forced into living in designated areas and banned from doing most kinds of work. As a result, even the cramped, often miserable and dangerous conditions of the Lower East Side and Hester Street still allowed many people the freedom they had not had in Russia.

Though more opportunity was available to Jewish immigrants in New York than in Russia, jobs were still scarce and often paid painfully little for long, grueling hours. Many people worked in sweatshops or by peddling wares on the street. In the novel Sara herself peddles herring as a child to try to earn extra money for her family. Sara's older sister, Bessie Smolinsky, marries a fish peddler on Hester Street. Hester Street at this time was home to the first pushcarts on the Lower East Side, and it soon became one of the largest pushcart markets in the country. Pushcarts were a remnant of tsarist Russia, under whose laws Jews could not own or rent property and were often on the move, so peddling goods by cart was one of the only ways of making a living left to them. People brought this tradition with them when they emigrated to the United States, creating a thriving market of everyday life on Hester Street and other streets in the Lower East Side. The Lower East Side was in many ways an entry point for much of the Jewish population, which eventually developed in many other parts of the United States.

Women in Early 20th-Century Manhattan

In the early 20th century women in the United States were still fighting for suffrage. As a result they had no right to vote, could not petition for higher wages or even the same wages as a male colleague, and had few professional avenues open to them. New York City was crowded with working-class women and immigrant communities in which every family member, including children, had to work for the family's survival. In contrast more and more middle-class women outside the ghetto areas were entering institutions of higher education and going on to work in more specialized professions. But there was enough resistance to this shift that large numbers of women were still not graduating from college or becoming physicians, and they were certainly not being paid equal wages for those same jobs. In Bread Givers Sara Smolinsky comes from a poor working-class immigrant family, so her future is likely one of hard labor in a factory or shop and then marriage. Sara watches her own sisters become run down by long hours of work in factories and shops with poor conditions, and later observes her eldest sister's misery in peddling fish. But Sara herself refuses to accept this fate and becomes one of the small contingents of working-class women who manage to go to college and get a job outside of the sweatshops and pushcarts. However, there are still limited career options open to Sara, even as a college educated woman, and teaching was one of the few professions considered widely acceptable for women at the time.

In the first two decades of the 20th century many women worked in industrial jobs, laboring in factories producing garments or other goods. In fact, at this time women consisted of 27 percent of the labor force in the industrial sector. Most of these women were from the poorer working class, and many were from immigrant communities. The Jewish immigrant community in particular saw many of its young girls working in garment sweatshops. Sara's sisters—Bessie Smolinsky, Mashah Smolinksky, and Fania Smolinsky—all worked in factories or shops like the majority of girls in the community. The conditions in most of these factories were terrible, without proper safety or hygiene. Many girls in these jobs grew ill or even died from work-related injuries. One of the most famous factory tragedies of the 20th century happened in a New York garment works staffed mostly by Jewish girls, and is known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. A blaze started at the garment factory, whose doors had been purposely locked to prevent theft and whose fire escapes collapsed when they became overloaded, so many of the workers were unable to get out of the building or died while fleeing the fire. In a short time the fire had killed 146 people, mostly women. Some women died from being trapped in the fire, while others jumped to their death from the windows in a desperate attempt to escape. This incident gave rise to movements calling for workplace reform, unionization, and better working conditions for women and factory workers.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Bread Givers? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!