Off the Shelf: Two novels about immigrants

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Reading two novels that focus on similar time periods and characters can make for interesting reading. Reading two novels that were written and published almost 100 years apart makes for fascinating reading. If I hadn’t known that “Bread Givers” by Anzia Yezierska (Penguin Classics) was originally published in 1925, I would have criticized it for its unrealistic, feminist approach to women of that time. That made comparing it to “Shayna” by Miriam Ruth Black (Kirk House Publishers), which was published in 2022, fun because, while its heroine dislikes religious restrictions on women’s actions, she would not qualify as a feminist. However, “Shayna” does contain material – fairly explicit descriptions of rape and violence – that few publishers would have been willing to print in the early part of the 20th century. 

There are other differences between the novels: “Bread Givers” is narrated by Sara Smolinsky, the youngest of four daughters of a rabbi father who refuses to work for a living, expecting his daughters to support him. Sara has no memories of Poland and dreams of becoming a true American. “Shayna” begins during a pogrom in Ukraine. Almost all of Shayna’s family are murdered except for her nephew, Dovid. She does have tickets from a brother who moved to American years before and plans to travel there with her fiancé, Yossi, and his mother, Manya. Readers see what occurs not only from Shayna’s point of view, but that of Yossi and Manya. 

In “Bread Givers,” Sara watches her father force her three sisters into joyless marriages after forbidding them to marry men they loved. Those potential son-in-laws were either not religious enough or refused to support him. Her father subjects the women in his family to verbal abuse and demands a separate room for his religious books, even though everyone else has to share space. Sara’s mother is castigated for not giving him sons and not being able to manage on the money her daughters bring home from back-breaking work. Sara wants something more for herself: she dreams of becoming a school teacher, but the only way for her to follow that dream is to separate herself from her family.

Yet, as she pursues those dreams, Sara wonders if she will ever fit into American society. The people she meets outside the tenement seem so different from her. And she wonders about her family: in fact, she misses them and wishes they had better lives. But trying to reason with her father is impossible: he belittles her and her efforts to better herself, claiming that women’s only purpose in life is to support their father or husband and have children. The pull between her family, her dreams and her obligations serve as the core of Sara’s struggle. 

My one quibble with this version of the novel is the forward. Deborah Feldman, author of the memoir “Unorthodox,” wonders if readers will be able to understand the novel’s prose, particularly the dialogue written with Yiddish inflections. I didn’t find that a problem and neither will most readers. The beauty of “Bread Givers” is that, even though it was written almost 100 years ago, it still feels fresh and real. Although we may not face the exact same problems that Sara does, her thoughts and desires will still speak to contemporary readers. The feminist perspective is refreshing, as is the fact that Sara learns and grows during her successes and trials. I might never have read the novel if Penguin Classics had not offered this new version and commend the publisher for doing so. 

While we only learn about Sara’s father from her point of view, the religious characters in “Shayna” have an opportunity to speak for themselves. Although Shayna no longer believes in a loving and caring God, when life feels oppressive, she still experiences comfort in praying. Yossi, who loves studying Jewish texts, fears losing his soul during their journey and must balance his love of study with the practical realities of the world. He also must comes to terms with his inability to protect Shayna from a horrific event. Their once loving relationship is marred by the experience and both wonder if it can ever recover.

The older generation is also given a voice in Manya who never dreamed she would be forced to choose between her sons: either going with her one son and her grandchildren to Palestine or accompanying Shayna and Yossi to New York. Although she tried to be the voice of reason during their journey and life in the U.S., she often irritates Shayna who sees her as meddlesome – revealing secrets Shayna would prefer to remain hidden. What does keep Shayna from total despair is the need to create a better future for Dovid: she wants to protect him since he is the only member of her family for whom she cares. She had hopes of connecting to her American brother, but life in the U.S. has turned him into someone she doesn’t recognize. 

Parts of “Shayna” can be difficult to read due to the subject matter, but it’s well worth persevering. The author does an excellent job making readers feel for her characters and offers a wonderful portrait of Jewish life in all its glory and imperfections. I’d resisted asking for a review copy of the novel due to its serious nature, but owe thanks to a friend who pushed me to read it. Someday, “Shayna” may be considered as much of a classic as “Bread Givers.”