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The novel Bread Givers describes a conflict between modern and traditional lifestyles centering on hypocrisy in religion, the American dream, and the rise of women’s rights. The author sets the story in New York, helping to explore the horrors associated with poverty in the family of Reb Smolinsky, an orthodox rabbi. The novel concentrates on the lives of each member of this family, Reb’s wife, Shena Smolinsky and their four daughters - Bessie, Masha, Fania and Sara.
Traditionally, the society mandates men to provide for their families, while women support their men, especially on the home front. The novel describes the story of a poor family, with a male figure who does little to provide for his family. In the Bread Givers, the real givers are the women. During this time, there were big differences between men and women. Reb showed less concern for his women’s hard work: Reb’s daughter’s prayers were valueless because God does not pay attention to women. The only way women could get to heaven was through their men. Despite being the family head, Reb is a parasite to his family. At first, the family owned a boarding house, and later a grocery in New Jersey which was the family’s main family business.
In all these businesses, Reb leaves all the work to his daughters and wife as he says, “Lengthy hours of mindless drudgery belong to the filthy grinds with no thoughts” . The major provider of the family is Bessie Smolinsky, the eldest of the daughters. At a young age, Bessie works hard to support her family financially, while their father berates them and waits to spend the money Bessie earns. Bessie extends the need to work hard to her siblings. She tells her sister Mashah that their father called her “empty head” because she goes out to look for money but comes back with a rose. This shows how much Bessie valued hard work, and the ability to provide for the family. To portray how much Bessie provided for her family, the author illustrates a situation when her father denies her marriage to Berel Berenstein because he feels he cannot live without Bessie’s wages. However, Berel cannot marry Bessie with the dowry Mr.Molinsky requests. He leaves Bessie when she refuses to defy her father about the marriage. Bessie also becomes a bread giver to her family when she marries Zalmon. Even though she is terrified of the loneliness this marriage would bring to her life, she goes ahead to marry a fish peddler who pays her dowry.
Bessie obtains hope and courage from Benny, whom she sees as her “light”. Bessie’s boyfrined, Berel, wanted to marry Besie because she is sensible and competent, thus being of great help to his business. This indicates the faith men had in Bessie’s ability to work and provide for her family. Mrs. Smolinsky is a hard worker. Together with her daughters, she works in the family business in order to provide for her family. After her daughter Bessie’s marriage, she is worried when her husband invests all the money from Bessie’s dowry into the grocery business. When this fails to go well, Mrs.Smolinsky and her youngest daughter Sara struggle to survive amidst criticisms from her husband.
Another giver of the family is Mashah. Though her family considers her shallow, Mashah uses her beauty to survive and help her family. When she falls in love with Jacob Novak, a musician, she radiates with love and happiness. She maintains the house clean and organized, her joy is visible on her face and she spreads this to everyone who knows her and keeps fresh flowers to her family table. All this is new to her family. Mashah seems to provide a new life to her family through her beauty. All this continues until Jacob leaves, leaving Mashah crushed. Fania does little to support her family financially, other than work in the family business together with her sisters. Fania speaks her mind to defend her boyfriend, Morris Lipkin, a poet. However, Fania ends up getting married to Abe Schumkler, a suit dealer chosen by Reb Smolinsky.
The last daughter, Sara, is a hard worker who struggles to live her life without her father’s influence, especially when it comes to her choice of a marriage partner. Sara is sternly independent. She gives hope to her family and struggles to have her own inspiration and life. As she works hard with her mother at the family business, her father’s authority and tyranny constantly feed up Sara. She runs away to start a life of her own. She planned to stay with one of her sister’s but realizes that they are all worn-down by their marriages. Sara decides to rent a room and stays alone. She works in a laundry in order to provide for herself. This way, Sarah becomes her own bread giver. Sara works harder to make her life better, more than all her sisters do. Pushed by her dream to be a teacher, she works during the day and takes night studies. Sara’s life is not easy as she faces ostracism from her workmates, her sisters pressure her to get married and her mother pleads with her to go home. Despite all these, Sara does not give up. Additionally, Sara faces problems in college because she is poor and barely affords nice clothes and other things that her college mates have. Through perseverance, she graduates and starts working in a school system in New York. To celebrate her financial independence, Sara rents a larger apartment. All through these, Sara provides for herself.
All through the novel, Reb maintains a back role in providing for his family. His wife and daughters seem to support his existence. Reb relies on his daughter’s hard work and dowry to establish himself as a business person. This is visible in his idea to select husbands for his daughters without giving them an opportunity to decide whom they want to marry. He materializes his daughters and uses them to make a living for himself without caring about their happiness. However, when his wife dies, he marries a widow, Mrs. Feinstein, and becomes her giver. Reb Smolinsky uses the money he gets from his daughters to provide for the widow. When they realize that the widow’s intentions are to extort money from them, Reb’s daughters stop talking to their father.
In conclusion, the novel Bread Givers describes a transition from traditional to modern family life. In the traditional setting, the society expected men to be the bread givers for their families. However, this changed in the modern world. Women become bread givers, providing for their families’ needs and struggling to improve their lives. In the novel, the author illustrates the hard work of Sara, Bessie, Mrs. Smolinsky, Masha and Fania. Each of these women finds ways of helping their families and improving their individual lives. They are weighed down by the authority society places on men over them, but they remain givers. Sara struggles to be her own provider, elevating her social and financial status without seeking help from others. She seemed to have learnt from the lives of her sisters, and sternly refuses to follow her father’s ideas.