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Bread Givers | Themes

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Poverty's Effects

Poverty is a pervasive theme throughout Bread Givers. Everyone is poor on Hester Street, where Sara Smolinsky is raised, and Sara's experience of life until she is an adult is one filled with extreme poverty. Sara is haunted by distinct memories of intense hunger, living in a space crammed with their belongings, and being surrounded by dirt. She also watches and internalizes what poverty does to families and relationships. She notices how, when her family takes boarders and for the first time has a little more food and can pay their bills, the tempers of everyone in the household quickly lower. Her mother and father in particular fight less because her mother is not constantly struggling for the family's bare survival. Sara's father is therefore not interrupted by his wife's practical ways and is in a much better mood.

Sara spends much of the book desperate to escape the poverty she feels trapped in. As a child, she finds creative ways to make a little money for the family and notes how empowered this makes her feel. As she grows older she works in factories and is known as a good worker, because she is determined to make as much money as possible. But after watching how her sisters are married off for money, Sara begins to understand that the issue of poverty is more complex than just having or not having money. She begins to understand that to truly escape the cycle of poverty, she must get an education and strike out on her own. In Sara's mind, education is the key to unlock a whole other world, one where she doesn't have to spend her life under her tyrannical father's roof, or married to someone who doesn't think of her as a person.

Through her experience of college Sara also sees how poverty has made her different from many of her classmates. Most of her fellow college students come from well-off backgrounds and have a carefree way of living that Sara doesn't understand. Sara feels like an outsider, because everything she does has weight—she risks losing what she's worked for with any wrong move, so she lives a much more serious life than her classmates. She sees how she cannot afford to wear the same clothes or do the same activities as those students because of her background and her poverty. This is the first time Sara has really left her regular sphere of community, and she realizes how divisive the lack of money in America can be.

The American Dream Versus Traditional Beliefs

The "American Dream" and "Americanization" are both critical parts of Sara Smolinsky and her immigrant community's experience. Much of Sara's community on Hester Street sees Americanization as a negative thing. They associate it with children rebelling against their parents or discarding old ways and traditions. Young people such as Shprintzeh Gittel's daughter are accused of being Americanized because they act differently or have different beliefs regarding propriety or social conformity from the rest of their community. Shprintzeh Gittel's daughter is described as being Americanized for suggesting that "a man shouldn't hit a lady." The idea of the American Dream overlaps with this idea of Americanization, because it encompasses a spirit of individualism that ranks above family duty. The old traditions insist on family duty above all, which conflicts with much of the American ideal of the individual's ability to work hard and manifest their personal dream.

Sara is the only member of her family who actually lives out, in a sense, the American Dream, and she becomes quite Americanized in the process. Her father thought he would come to America and find wealth in abundance waiting for him, and when that isn't the case he continues his study of the Torah and tries to shut out everything around him in order to focus on those studies. As an extremely Orthodox man, he sees this as his primary duty, held much higher than the duty to make money or pull his family out of poverty. As a result, instead of trying to help his family's impoverished situation, he relies on the women in his family to make a living while simultaneously sulking and belittling them. Like many of the men in this story, Reb Smolinsky is threatened by Americanization, because it means empowerment and independence for his daughters, who traditionally were viewed as property of their fathers or husbands. Their independence also challenges his deeply held religious beliefs. Zalmon doesn't like the idea of Sara in his house because her Americanized ways might be a bad influence on his own daughter, presumably meaning that she might start acting independently from her father.

Children, too, were thought of as lower beings than adults, and the rapidly Americanizing Sara insists that "this is America, where children are people." When she leaves her father's house after he slaps her, she also has the realization that "the Old World had struck its last on her." Sara feels that America represents independence and a possible future without poverty or tyranny, whereas the "old ways" of her father represent need, repressive tradition, and her value being measured in her marriageability.

Differing Concepts of Duty

Duty plays an important role in Sara Smolinsky's life and the life of her family. Duty seems to be more an idea from the Old World, where women were expected to put the needs of their husbands and families ahead of their own needs and desires. Sara's father constantly insists his daughters have a duty to support him and do what he says. Sara sees duty in a somewhat different light. She values her duty to herself, and she feels that getting an education and removing herself from her family's impoverished situation is the way she can be dutiful to her own spirit and potential. In the end, however, Sara recognizes the importance of family duty, and as a result of this realization she takes in and cares for the father she spent so many years trying to escape.

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