Bread Givers | Study Guide

Anzia Yezierska

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Bread Givers | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Book 1: Hester Street

As a young girl Sara Smolinsky watches her family struggle for money and to put food on the table. Her father spends his time reading and studying the Torah while Sara's older sisters work in shops or factories and her mother takes care of the family. At age 10 Sara peddles herring in order to feel she is contributing to the family. Her father and mother fight constantly as a result of their poverty and her mother's worry about paying the rent and other bills. When the landlady comes to collect, there is a confrontation between her and Sara's father, Reb Smolinsky, which ends in his striking her and being taken to court. He wins the court battle and returns to their community a hero. (Reb is an honorific title for a rabbi without a congregation.)

When Sara's sisters Bessie Smolinsky, Mashah Smolinsky, and Fania Smolinsky all bring home prospective suitors that they have chosen, Reb Smolinksy rejects or ignores them, one by one. He doesn't want to lose the income the girls bring in. When challenged about this by his wife, he goes out and finds the girls husbands, whom the sisters begrudgingly marry. Bessie's husband is a fish peddler whom she loathes, Fania's husband turns out to be a gambler who largely neglects her, and Mashah's husband is a con man who spends his money on himself while letting his wife and babies go hungry. Sara watches all of this happen with increasing anger toward her father.

In exchange for handing Bessie over as a wife to Zalmon the fish peddler, Zalmon pays the reb $500. Reb Smolinsky uses this money to purchase a supermarket out in a small town in New Jersey, which turns out to be a swindle. With no way to make the supermarket work, the family begins fighting. Sara finally reaches the end of her patience, leaves her family, and heads back to New York. She attempts to stay with Bessie and then with Mashah, but both are in miserable situations, and their husbands force Sara to leave.

Book 2: Between Two Worlds

At this point Sara decides to support herself and get an education. She uses the little money she has to secure a dirty hole of a room as a place to live and then finds a job working in a laundry. After her first day at the laundry, she is exhausted but forces herself to eat dinner in a cafeteria for working girls and then enroll in night school. She signs up for the necessary classes to be able to enter college to become a teacher. After a few weeks of living her new life, Sara is exhausted and hungry. Her mother visits just as Sara is longing for her, bringing a warm feather bed and some food. Sara is overjoyed to see her mother but tells her she won't be able to come home until her schooling is done, to her mother's great sorrow.

Sara's sisters also come to visit her. They admit their situations are unhappy but still insist Sara should get married. Sara doesn't wish to get married, and she feels increasingly an outcast from her schoolmates and colleagues at the laundry. She becomes very lonely, and right as she reaches the bottom of that isolation a man named Max Goldstein visits her. He's a businessman from Los Angeles, sent by Sara's sister Fania to court Sara. Max and Sara go out a few times together over a week, and Sara feels like a new person. She feels young and vibrant for the first time in her life. But at the end of the week, she realizes she could never be happy with Max, and she rejects him. Her father arrives shortly thereafter and disowns Sara for turning down Max's proposal.

After finishing two years of night school, Sara enrolls in college and begins her teacher studies in earnest. She moves to a small college town and stays in a girls' dorm while working at a local laundry and studying. Her college years, like the night school years, are lonely. But she befriends a few of the older professors, which alleviates some of her loneliness. At the end of four years she graduates and wins the local essay contest on the meaning of a college education, with a prize of $1,000.

Book 3: The New World

With her $1,000 from the essay contest Sara is able to travel back to New York in comfort for the first time. She heads straight to Fifth Avenue and buys an expensive new teaching suit, and then secures the type of light, airy lodging she has dreamed about. After this period of happy indulgence she goes to see her mother, who has moved back to Hester Street with Sara's father. Sara finds her mother dying and is joined by her three sisters at her mother's deathbed. After her mother passes away, Sara refuses to rend (tear) her new suit of clothes as Jewish funerals traditionally require, and she is ridiculed by the community.

As Sara begins her new teaching job at a local school, her father marries the widow living on the floor above him. The sisters are all horrified that their father has dishonored their mother's memory by remarrying so quickly after her death, and they refuse to help the couple with money or support. The marriage quickly becomes unhappy, and the wife repeatedly writes to Sara asking for money.

Sara experiences a connection with the principal at her school, Hugo Seelig, and they begin seeing one another regularly. During this time Sara stumbles across her father peddling chewing gum and looking frighteningly frail and old. She begins going to his house to help take care of him as he becomes increasingly ill, and she takes a leave of absence from school. Realizing that money might help his wife act less venomous, Sara begins giving her money for the trinkets she wishes to buy. Eventually, Sara brings Hugo Seelig to meet her father, and the two men take to one another. Sara realizes her father cannot keep living with his current wife and would be miserable alone in an old men's home, so she and Hugo offer to have him come live with them for the rest of his life.

Bread Givers Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Mashah is married off to con man Moe Mirsky.

Rising Action

2 Fania is married off to the gambler Abe Schmukler.

3 Bessie is sold to Zalmon the fish peddler for $500.

4 Reb Smolinsky buys a supermarket but is swindled.

5 Sara leaves her family for New York.

6 Sara gets a job and begins night school.

7 Max Goldstein courts Sara, but she rejects him.

8 Sara moves to a small town to start college.


9 Sara graduates from college and wins an essay contest.

Falling Action

10 Shenah, Sara's mother, dies.

11 Hugo Seelig and Sara fall in love.


12 Sara and Hugo bring Sara's father to live with them.

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