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Anzia Yezierska (1881 - 1970)
 Anzia Yezierska (1881 - 1970) was born in Pinsk, and emigrated to New York City when she was a teenager. She wrote about the struggles of
Jewish and later Puerto Rican immigrants in New York's Lower East
Side. Her most studied work Bread Givers (ISBN 0892550147) follows the
story of young woman while struggling to live from day to day
struggles to find her place in Jewish and American culture.

Yezierska's own life is described in her autobiography Red Ribbon on a
White Horse: My Story (ISBN 0892551240).

External links
Anzia Yezierska
Study guide at Georgetown
Anzia Yezierska and the Popular Periodical Debate Over the Jews
undergraduate paper on (amongst others)Yezierska's The Fat of the Land
Dictionary of Literary Biography on Anzia Yezierska
Anzia Yezierska, novelist and short-story writer, belonged to that
generation of Jewish immigrant authors who wrote about the Jewish
migration from the pogrom-ridden Eastern European shtetl to the cities
of America in the late nineteenth and early twenti.centuries. Like her
contemporary Abraham Cahan, author of The Rise of David Levinsky,
Yezierska focuses upon the struggles of her protagonists to become
Americanized and to better themselves economically. She dramatizes as
well the way in which traditional Jewish values--piety, dedication to
religious studies, filial obedience, loyalty to one's own group--are
eroded as her immigrant characters become increasingly assimilated.
Yezierska's special contribution to American-Jewish literature,
however, lies in her depiction of the Jewish immigrant experience from
the point of view of the Jewish woman, whose struggles to achieve
autonomy both within the family and in the larger American society she
describes sympathetically and persuasively.

Born in a mud hut in Plinsk, on the Russian-Polish border, to Bernard
and Pearl Yezierska, Anzia Yezierska immigrated to New York's Lower
East Side with her family at the age of fifteen. By day she worked in
a sweatshop and at other menial jobs, while at night she attended
school to learn to read and write English. Three years after her
arrival in America, she obtained a scholarship to study domestic
science at Columbia University; however, her subsequent career as a
teacher of domestic science was short-lived since she found herself to
be temperamentally unsuited to the job of teaching. About 1910 she
married an attorney, but after only a few months this marriage was
annulled. Shortly thereafter she married Arnold Levitas, a teacher and
author of textbooks, and gave birth to a daughter, Louise. However,
finding domestic chores and maternal responsibilities to be
oppressive, Yezierska left Levitas and soon after surrendered her
daughter to his care. She devoted the remainder of her life to
pursuing a career as a writer.

Yezierska describes again and again in her fiction the attempt of a
spirited Jewish female protagonist from the ghetto to bridge the chasm
between the chaotic though vital immigrant milieu and the orderly but
ultimately repressed world of the uptown Jews and WASPs. Seeking to
capture the essence of ghetto life and to approximate the rhythms of
her native Yiddish tongue as well as the fractured English of her
immigrant characters, she fashioned a series of Bildungsromane and
short stories which delineate the metamorphosis of the immigrant girl
from "greenhorn" to educated young lady and her subsequent liaison
with either an urbane and assimilated Jewish young man or a scholarly
WASP who serves as her mentor. Several of her short stories focus on
the daily experiences of middle-aged and older women from the ghetto.
Writing about her own literary efforts, Yezierska said, "I began to
build a bridge of understanding between the American-born and myself.
Since their life was shut out from such as me, I began to open my life
and the lives of my people to them.... Writing about the Ghetto, I
found America." To Yezierska, America was a miraculous country which
afforded those immigrants possessing determination and intelligence
the opportunity to "make a person" of themselves. By becoming
educated, they would be able to escape the squalor and ugliness of the
ghetto; in turn, they could infuse their warmth and vitality into the
sterile, restrained Anglo-Saxon American culture. Frequently in her
works, however, the protagonist, once she has become Americanized,
finds herself suspended uncomfortably between the restrictive but
colorful ghetto culture and the aseptic uptown world for which she had
once yearned.

With the publication of her short story "Free Vacation House" in Forum
in December of 1915, Yezierska's literary career was launched. Her
story movingly describes the humiliating encounters of a Jewish mother
from the Lower East Side tenements with benevolent but condescending
charity workers. Though she and her children are able to escape
temporarily from their dirty, overcrowded surroundings when they are
sent to the country for a brief vacation, they are continuously
reminded by their benefactors that they are recipients of charity and
must behave accordingly.

In 1917 Yezierska made the acquaintance of John Dewey and obtained
permission to audit his seminar in social and political thought at
Columbia University. During the course of this year, a romantic
relationship developed between the fifty-eight-year-old Dewey and
Yezierska, who was then in her thirties.Included in The Collected
Poems of John Dewey are several poems which he wrote to and about
Yezierska in 1917 and 1918. Dewey was to serve as the prototype for
the supportive though austere Anglo-Saxon male appearing again and
again in her fiction in the role of mentor and sometimes lover of the
young Jewish immigrant female protagonist. When Dewey's seminar
concluded, he asked Yezierska to serve as translator for a group of
graduate students who were conducting a study of the Polish community
in Philadelphia. This experience is treated fictionally in Yezierska's
novel All I Could Never Be (1932). Dewey and Yezierska parted in 1918,
when he left for an extended trip abroad.

Recognition for her realistic fictional representation of immigrant
life came to Yezierska when Edward J. O'Brien not only included her
short story "The Fat of the Land" in Best Short Stories of 1919 but
also dedicated the volume to her. The story describes the feeling of
alienation and loneliness that Hannah Breineh, an elderly Jewish woman
from the ghetto, experiences after her affluent, well-meaning children
install her in an elegant but sterile uptown apartment.

Though she realizes how superior her new home is to her former shabby
tenement dwelling, she misses the bustle and camaraderie of the
The next year Yezierska published a volume of short stories about
Jewish immigrant life, Hungry Hearts (1920). With the appearance of
this book, she became a celebrity, for Hollywood producer Samuel
Goldwyn purchased the film rights to the work and with much fanfare
brought her out to Hollywood. Called "Queen of the Ghetto" and "The
Immigrant Cinderella" by publicists of the day, Yezierska settled in
California with the intention of pursuing her writing career there,
but within the year she returned East because she discovered that when
she was no longer living in the familiar milieu of New York's Lower
East Side she could not write. After her return, she began her first
novel, Salome of the Tenements (1923). This novel is based on the love
affair and marriage of Yezierska's friend, the immigrant Socialist
writer Rose Pastor, to Graham Stokes, scion of an upper-class WASP
family. In the novel, Sonya Vrunsky, news reporter for the Ghetto
News, falls in love with an American philanthropist named John
Manning, a character who resembles philosopher John Dewey. Inspired by
Sonya's impassioned concern for the poor, Manning decides to devote
his life to social causes.

The short stories and sketches which subsequently appeared in
Yezierska's Children of Loneliness (1923) and in the novels Arrogant
Beggar (1927) and All I Could Never Be also deal with the immigrant
experience, describing the female version of the American Dream and
delineating as well the tensions between the values of the Old World
and the New World. Though Yezierska's early works were on the whole
favorably reviewed by the critics, those who had applauded the
emotional power of her early fiction soon began to speak pejoratively
of her unvarying style and subject matter. And while several of her
short stories, including "Free Vacation House" and "The Fat of the
Land," are memorable literary achievements, the novels, with their
somewhat implausible plots and their frequently too predictable
characters, are interesting at present primarily as fictional
documents of the immigrant experience.

Yezierska's most fully realized fictional work is Bread Givers (1925),
an autobiographical novel that was republished in 1975. Sara
Smolinsky, the feisty first-person narrator of this novel, not only
fights to escape from the oppressive tenement world but also from the
strictures imposed on Jewish women by the patriarchal pronouncements
of the Orthodox Jewish religion, personified in the novel by Sara's
father, Reb Smolinsky. Sara constantly challenges the authority of her
domineering father, a religious scholar who studies his sacred books
and drinks tea with his male cronies while his wife and four daughters
struggle to bring in enough money from their menial jobs to sustain
the impoverished household. Sara's three older sisters all fall prey
to their father's schemes to marry them off to suitors chosen by him,
men who he believes will help him to better his own economic
situation. However, seeing the dreams of each of her older sisters
betrayed, Sara is determined to avoid their fate by acquiring an
education and becoming independent. "Woe to America where women are
let free like men," Reb Smolinsky thunders. Undaunted by his
imprecations, Sara resolves to free herself from the restraints
imposed by poverty and lack of education, as well as from her father's
dominion. She leaves her father's house and rents a room of her own
with her meager wages, proclaiming, "I'm smart enough to look out for
myself. It's a new life now. In America, women don't need men to boss
them." In America, as Sara proves, women can also develop their
intellectual capacities, something that only Jewish males were
traditionally encouraged to do. Bread Givers is not only an indictment
of patriarchal Jewish attitudes towards women; it is also a threnody
for a culture whose vitality will be sapped by economic and social
pressures. As Reb Smolinsky's holy books are moved to make room for
boarders, and as he himself dons a grocer's apron in order to realize
his own American dream of economic success, it becomes apparent that
the Old World religious culture cannot survive intact amid the
pressures of the secular New World. Yezierska's vivid portrayal of
tenement life, of cultural conflicts, and most importantly, of the
struggles of her young female protagonist to achieve autonomy, even if
she must defy the traditions of her people to do so, makes this novel
a memorable contribution to American-Jewish literature.

The Depression years brought economic hardship to Yezierska, as they
did to many other writers. The royalties from her published books were
negligible, and her modest savings disappeared with the stock-market
crash. Like many other unemployed writers of this era, she was
fortunate to find both a job and a community through the W.P.A.
Writers' Project, though the work assigned to her--cataloguing the
trees in Central Park--hardly made effective use of her creative
talents. This period in her life, as well as the early years of her
career, is vividly described in her autobiographical novel Red Ribbon
on a White Horse (1950). The novel also recounts her brief sojourn in
a small New Hampshire town after a ghetto acquaintance willed her some
money and thus freed her for a time from the pressing necessity of
earning a living. However, discovering once again, as she had during
the year she lived in Hollywood, that she could not write when she was
too far removed from the familiar ghetto world of her youth, she soon
returned to New York City, where she lived until her death. Though she
had no novels published after 1950, she continued to write short
stories and book reviews. Her last published story, "Take up Your Bed
and Walk," which describes the experience of an elderly Jewish woman,
appeared in Chicago Jewish Forum in 1969, a year before her death, and
has recently been republished in a volume of her collected fiction,
The Open Cage: An Anzia Yezierska Collection (1979), edited by Alice
Kessler Harris. With the publication of this collection and the
republication of Bread Givers, Anzia Yezierska's fiction is now
available to a new generation of readers.

Over a career of more than fifty years Anzia Yezierska was a prominent
part of the vanguard in the literary treatment of the immigrant

As she stated in stories, essays, and interviews, Yezierska felt her
mission as a writer was to "build a bridge of understanding between
the American-born and myself," essentially to translate the experience
of the Jewish ghetto for all America. Her work demonstrates not only
her conviction that she could build this bridge, but also her belief
in America as the promised land. Finding a common language through
which to describe herself and her people was no easy task, however.
While her tales express a belief in this land of opportunity, her
female protagonists just as often articulate Yezierska's feeling of
being "in" America but "not of them." The bridge between the Old World
and New often seems like an illusion, with Yezierska and her
characters caught between "worlds of difference that no words could
bridge over."