Clashing Values in a Society: Conflicts within Reb Smolinsky in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers
Values and status are linked together in every society. Status is given to the persons who embody the values of that social construct. The values of the Old Country, Russia, were those of spiritual and religious piousness and learning. Therefore those who studied religion, like Reb Smolinsky, were among those who held the highest status. However, in America, these values were not the same. Immigrants soon learned of the capitalist nature of a materialistically driven land where whoever had the most wealth held the most status. The question arises, what happens when people in a society with one set of values enter a society with different values? To assimilate successfully, the immigrant’s values must undergo a change. In her novel Bread Givers, Anzia Yezierska tells the tale of an immigrant family who has difficulty coping with such a clash of values. Reb Smolinsky in particular is a character that craves his status so much so that he changes his values in America and adopts something he doesn’t understand, thus ruining his family.
Jews in Russia lived differently than they did as immigrants in America. In Russia they lived in shtetls and were a close community of Jews. It is easy to judge the values of this community through its actions. Sara Smolinsky’s Mother tells her daughter stories of her life back in the Old Country. She informs her daughter of the riches she once had, and tells the story of how she was engaged to marry Reb Smolinsky. A matchmaker in Russia arranged most marriages, and Mother claims that she had suitors begging for her hand. "When I got fourteen years old, the matchmakers from all the villages, far and near, began knocking on our doors, telling my father the rich men’s sons that were crazy to marry themselves to me" (Yezierska, Bread Givers 31). Still, Shenah’s father did not choose a rich man to be his son-in-law. Their family had plenty of money, but money was not what was most important to this society. The Jews of the Old Country valued religion and it was the religious leaders that held the most status. Rabbis didn’t have to work and were instead supported by their communities because they were so valued. These Rabbis were considered holy and because they were so knowledgeable in religion, they were holy enough to do nothing but learn. The entire community would kneel at the feet of a Rabbi to listen to his wisdom, ask him questions, or have him dictate town law and interpret the Bible. Thus, Shenah’s father recognized that in order to achieve a higher status, his daughter would marry for piousness.
But Father said, he got plenty of money himself. He wanted to buy himself honor in the family. He wanted only learning in a son-in-law. Not only could he give his daughter a big dowry, but he could promise his son-in-law twelve years’ free board and he wouldn’t have to do anything but sit in the synagogue and learn (Yezierska 31).
Mother describes her husband to her daughter as so holy that when, "They called me in to give a look on him, but I was so ashamed I ran out of the house...I didn’t give a look on your Father till the day of the engagement, and then I was too bashful to really look on him" (Yezierska 31-32). Mother is humbled by Father’s holiness so much so that she cannot even look at him.
Father was wise, "How rich with the sap of centuries were his words of wisdom!," professes Sara. (Yezierska 202) So wise that, "Mother licked up Father’s every little word, like honey"
(Yezierska 166). It was this knowledge that gave Reb Smolinsky the high status he needed in order to marry Shenah and live a life of comfort. But then hard times fell upon the family and they were forced to immigrate to America. Mother says, "When everything was gone from us, then our only hope was to come to America, were Father thought things cost nothing at all" (Yezierska 34). However, Father soon learns that he was horrible mistaken. The Smolinsky family realizes that the land of freedom and opportunity comes with a price, and they are no longer living lavishly. Yezierska scholar Gay Wilentz claims:
While the desire to assimilate was strong - especially for those coming from restricted shtetls - the immigrants were aware that attempts to assimilate into the dominant culture often precluded adherence to a centuries-old culture which has existed only because of its adherents. (33)
In addition to this now non-adherence to old culture, not only do the Smolinskys need to alter their lifestyles in order to assimilate, but also, since the values of the Old Country are not the same in America, Reb Smolinsky is faced with the problem of rebuilding his now worthless status. Living in poverty on Hester Street, Reb Smolinsky is no longer considered a man of stature. For, in America, religious leaders were not important. Religion did not dictate law, and the Holy Torah was not respected.
The promised land, as Mary Antin hopefully called it, turned out for many to be a furthering of cultural isolation and poverty. For the men of stature – that is, the scholars of the community – life in America was poverty without the status of community leader and spiritual guide. The dominant capitalist culture hardly prized a learning of Torah or
the scholar’s position as community exemplar. Nevertheless, Reb Smolinsky held on to these values and traditions. (Wilentz 35)
This lack of reverence is clear through the interactions between Reb Smolinsky, the spiritual leader, and the people of the community, part of a capital materialistic America.
Max Goldstein says it best when he claims, "It’s money that makes the world go round" (Yezierska 199), and, "Money making is the biggest game in America" (Yezierska 196). Father is steadfast in his belief in religion, the prime value of his past, and cannot abandon it. Still, Father does not wish to disperse of a status, which he is now well accustomed to. Thus Reb Smolinsky acknowledges that he must make money in order to stay at a high level of status. Yet, Father, despite all his spiritual holiness, is not capable of making money in this new environment. He cannot give up his old values enough in order to successfully adopt a materialistic capitalistic mind frame needed to achieve economic success in America. Mother claims, "If he was only so fit for this world, like he is fit for Heaven, then I wouldn’t have to dry out the marrow from my head worry for the rent" (Yezierska 16). Money is what is important in this society. And, because it is this materialism that is valued in America, Reb Smolinsky doesn’t receive the respect of status he once had in his new land. He is not revered like he was in the Old Country for his knowledge, but instead he is smirked because he does not work and is poor.
Thus Reb Smolinsky is determined to find the means of advancing his status in his new country. He knows little of capitalism except that he wants to have money. And he devises his own schemes in order to acquire it. Thomas J. Ferraro, Yezierska critique says in ‘Working Ourselves Up’ in America: Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, "It is [Reb] Smolinsky (with increasing enthusiasm) who
dictates the terms, methods, and goals of what Bessie the eldest calls ‘working ourselves up’" (Ferraro, 554). Unfortunately these terms, methods, and goals for which Reb Smolinsky has set for himself and his family prove unrealistic in a situation where the Reb himself refuses to work. Instead he wishes to capitalize off of his family so that he can strengthen the value of his own status.
When the Landlady approaches the Smolinsky apartment for her rent, Father claims that he cannot pay because his daughters are out of work. The Landlady screams, "Hear him only! The dirty do-nothing! Go to work yourself! Stop singing prayers. Then you’ll have money for rent!" (Yezierska 18). Clearly the Landlady does not value Torah study enough to merit Father not working. Father slaps the landlady in the face, "till the blood rushed from her nose" (Yezierska 22). "A Jewish patriarch bloodies a daughter of the faith who is, like his own daughters, merely trying to eke out a living" (Ferraro 555) Father does not see the intentions of the landlady as the same of his own – to build themselves up- and instead is blinded by his own stubbornness and desire for wealth.
Berel Bernstein, Bessie’s suitor, attempts to inform Father that his trade is useless in the New World. He reconfirms the clashing values between Father’s past and his present. "In America they got not use for Torah learning. In America everybody got to earn his living first. You got two hands and two feet" (Yezierska 48). Yet still, Reb has trouble abandoning his Torah, and he will not let go of this value. Still though he wishes to achieve a high status so the Reb becomes increasingly more worthless as he refuses to work but continues trying to capitalize off of the exploitation he inflicts upon his family. His wife says of him, "You’re so busy working for Heaven that I have to suffer here such bitter hell" (Yezierska 10).
Reb Smolinsky is a man who desires his status. Once he realizes that in America, his once respected occupation is now dishonored, he becomes determined to regain his high status. Yet still, Father refuses to enter into business. He continues to value the ideals of the Old Country and believes that his spirituality should be enough to sustain his lifestyle. But to his own dismay, he finds that America does not hold this same ideal to be true. This America does not value religion. Yezierska expert Alice Kessler-Harris states, "In America pious poverty earned no approbation" (Kessler-Harris
xviii). Instead the country looks highly upon those who have acquired wealth, and Father can make no money in this country off of his religion. Thus stubborn with his notion that he should do nothing but learn all day long, and conflicted with his desire to be of high status, Father decides he must find alternative ways in making money.
My religion is not for sale. I only want to go into business so as to keep sacred my religion. I want to get into some quick money-making thing that will not take up too many hours a day, so I could get most of my time for learning (Yezierska 111).
Reb Smolinsky involves himself in many "get rich quick" ideas. He purchases a grocery store and because he only has limited knowledge, and this is in the Torah Study, he burrows his family into further debt, as the boxes of food are found empty. "The emptiness of the boxes suggests not the vacuity of the American dream, but the cost of participation in it" (Ferraro 558). Father’s participation in the American dream – the acclimation of wealth and status is costly. He pays thee price of ruining the lives of his daughters by selling their love for money. Father acknowledges wealth as intrinsic to his ability to achieve a high status in America. Thus he attempts to marry his daughters into money so that he can also benefit from their unions and become rich himself.
Both Fania and Mashah still hold the values of the Old Country and, like their Mother, pick for themselves suitors who can fulfill them spiritually. Fania falls in love with a poet and Mashah with a musician. Fania is so steadfast in her beliefs in spirituality that she claims, "I’d rather have Lipkin and be poor, so long as I have the man I love" (Yezierska 69). But Father, in adopting to the values of the New Country realizes that riches such that fill the soul will not make any individual more valuable in this society. Instead, Father marries his daughters to men whom he thinks have wealth. In this new world, the women are not required to provide a dowry for their husbands, as was the custom in the old country.
Smolinsky reinterprets the obligation to provide a dowry as an opportunity to fund the mobility of the family. In a relentless exercise of paternal authority, he interferes with the love affairs of his three eldest daughters and arranges, one after another, disastrous marriages. (Ferraro 561)
It is wealth only that he looks at when considering men for his daughters to marry. "A diamond-dealer! What more can you ask? The riches shines from him. The minute I saw him by the matchmaker, I said: This is the man I want for my daughter" (Yezierska 74-75).
So Reb Smolinsky marries three of his four daughters to men they don’t love and they become miserable. After she is married, Fania soon writes home begging her Father to allow her to move back, but he denies her his blessing to leave her misery because he still hopes to gain money from her marriage. "In trying to profit from his daughter’s marriages, Smolinsky has been trying to turn fatherhood itself into a source of profit" (Ferraro 563). Reb Smolinsky turns his
family into a capitalistic regime and by doing so forces his youngest daughter to flee from him. Sara manages to escape her Father’s tyranny by running away from her household not allowing her Father to betroth her to a man for his own well being.
"Sara moves forward because she has uncovered the limits of social arrangements in which she is currently embedded and, subsequently scouting around, ahs identified alternative forms of mobility from which emanate promises for addressing these new concerns." (Ferraro 560) She has pursued her own dreams and becomes a schoolteacher, yet she does this the American way. "Sara Smolinsky in this novel, took America at its word and tried to live by its ideals" (Kessler-Harris xix). Sara acknowledges that in order to succeed in America, she must have money to live by, but she will not sacrifice her own values and her desire to learn. Thus Sara, in being able to fuse her values, to have them coexist and co navigate her life harmoniously, accomplishes her goal at the end of the novel while her Father cannot.
Father, though he tries many times to acquire status through wealth ultimately fails and finds him widowed and poor. Because he is unable to assimilate his old values successfully with the new values of his country, Father has failed in his quest for status. Yet Yezierska allows him one last victory when, at the end of the novel, Sara returns home and invites her Father to live with her and her new husband, Hugo Seelig, supporting him so that he may study his Torah all day long. And in addition to his secure lifestyle, Father is also redeemed at the end of the novel when Hugo Seelig asks Reb Smolinsky to teach him the Torah. At the end of the novel, a relentless Reb Smolinsky finds himself at peace with his two clashing values.
I thought that in America we were all lost. Jewishness is no Jewishness. Children are no children. Respect for fathers does not exist. And yet my own daughter who is not a Jewess and not a gentile – brings me a young man- and whom? An American. And for what? To learn Hebrew. From whom? From me. Lord of the Universe! You never forsake your faithful ones. (Yezierska 293-294)
So, what is Yezierska portraying by a happy ending where the Reb is at peace? Is she saying that it is possible for one who is stubborn in values that are unaccepted and foreign to a society to succeed in that society? Certainly not. At the end of the novel, Reb Smolinsky finds himself defeated, married to a woman who will not support nor care for him, lonely, and worthless. Only after such a dishonorable ending does Sara take pity on her Father and show him the sensitivity that he failed to show her. Reb Smolinsky is comfortable at the end of his life, but it is only because he chooses to be humble and recon ciliate with his daughter whom he once disowned from his family. Because Father can finally find a compromise within his values so that he can accept a daughter who disrespected his orders, he is ultimately rewarded the harmony between his value of study and his value of status. Reb is allowed to study freely with Sara and Hugo and, because Hugo is a principal of a school, and Sara is a schoolteacher, he is guaranteed financial status as well.
Reb Smolinsky needs his status so much that he changes his values so drastically and ultimately ruins the lives of his family, marrying his daughters into misery, exiling another daughter, and working his wife so hard that she dies of illness. By adopting a value system that was completely unbeknownst to him Reb Smolinsky buries himself and everyone affected by him into misery or poverty. That is, all except his one daughter, Sara. Because Sara Smolinsky is strong enough to defy
her Father and leave him, she is able to succeed in America and eventually rescues the man who forces her into this success. Thus, though Reb Smolinsky’s clashing values negatively affected him, and he fails to achieve on his own his acclimation of status, his ideals consequently help his daughter to achieve that which he was unable to. The novel ends with Sara Smolinsky, who has succeeded in balancing her value for knowledge with the need to acquire wealth in America, as a settled individual and she picks up her Father, now defeated, and helps him continue on his way.
South Atlantic Quarterly Summer 1990: Volume 89, Number 3.
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Wilentz, Gay. "Cultural Mediation and the Immigrant’s Daughter: Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers."
Rev. of Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska. MELUS Fall 1991-1992: Volume 17, Number 3.
Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers. 1925. New York: Persea Books, 1999.