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Bread Givers | Study Guide

Anzia Yezierska

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Bread Givers | Symbols


The Herring

The symbol of the herring appears in the very beginning of the novel when Sara Smolinsky becomes determined to go out and earn her own contribution for the family. She watches her sisters work hard at their jobs or to find jobs, and a desire awakens in her to earn some money as well. It is the moment when she first shows her ambition to earn her own way, and it reveals she has the cleverness to do it. Thus, the herring comes to represent Sara's first success in putting her mind to something and succeeding at it. The success is born out of desperation and the money goes to her family, but the moment is still a triumphant one for young Sara.

Additionally, the herring appears again in Chapter 11 when Sara is downcast and hungry and in one of her lowest moments is visited by her mother. Sara has had to skimp on her food to the point of near-starvation when her mother appears with a jar of herring. To Sara, who is trying so hard to leave the Old World behind and become a modern American woman, this jar of herring still symbolizes the comfort and familiarity of her family. It also gives her strength because it is connected to her first bid for independence and self-sufficiency. Despite the fact that the herring is part of a life she has left behind, it reminds her of the good things she experienced in that life, and how having a meal with her family made the meager food taste better. The fact that the herring is brought by her mother, who seems to have a sixth sense about appearing when Sara is most desperate for comfort, also connects the herring to family and the comfort of the old and familiar. For Sara, the herring is a remnant of her old life and old traditions she is still able to take comfort in, and her happiness at receiving the herring reveals that though she may be determined to separate herself from what she sees as outdated traditions, there are some pieces of her history she cannot remove from herself. In fact, Sara takes a piece of herring with her as she leaves for college, carrying a little bit of her past into her new life.

The Torah

For Sara Smolinsky, the Torah symbolizes the Old World and its traditions, a world where education is off-limits to women. Education itself represents freedom for Sara, but it is a very different type of education from that of her father's and his study of the Torah. Many of the men in her community, and some women as well, see education as unnecessary for women. The women are not expected or allowed to study the Torah, as this is considered men's dominion. Women are expected to obey men, because men hold the learning in the community. This expectation comes in part from a long history of tradition, and more practically because women are empowered by education and it provides them with an independence that is often deemed unnecessary if women's purpose is to be passed from father to husband and constantly provided for. For Sara's father, the Torah represents his deeply held religious beliefs and the traditions that generations have held sacred before him. He is profoundly offended when the landlady steps on his copy of the Torah, as the text embodies the sacred for him. Despite Sara's more negative views, much of the community reveres Reb Smolinsky for his learning and his devotion to his studies. Shenah Smolinsky reveals that he impressed her father and many people in their village with his understanding of the text when he came to court her.

Sara, however, watches this traditional system fall through for her mother and sisters, who do all the providing for the men in their lives anyway, and she resolves to get out of that cycle. She also observes how her father's study of the Torah does little to nothing to equip him for living in modern American life. Though Reb Smolinsky is a learned man by the standards of his community and fellow religious men, he is incapable of functioning in the world he has brought his family to in New York. Sara often sees her father as ignorant or foolish, despite his profound knowledge of the Torah, because she rejects his religious zeal and sees his choice of education as being outdated and useless in terms of creating a life in America or supporting his family.

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