The Promised Land (1912) by Mary Antin (public domain, free at https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/antin/land/land.html and Bread Givers (1925) by Anzia Yezierska (Third Edition, Persea Books, 2013, ISBN 978-0892552900).
As the descendent of Ashkenazi Jewish foremothers from the Pale of Settlement (the western region of the Russian Empire where Jews could reside from 1791-1917), there is a debate I frequently have with myself: Am I more a Mary Antin or an Anzia Yezierska? The question references two major chroniclers of turn-of-the twentieth century Jewish American women’s immigrant experience. Their youthful autobiographical writing about assimilation to life in the “Golden Land” include detailed portrayals of their struggles to find stability, happiness, and success on their own terms. Both women craved education, independence, and love. They fought to lift themselves out of poverty, to learn all they could, and to share the affection of an equal.
The internal debate I indulge in is kind of like taking an online personality quiz. It is mostly about my mood, about which writer’s perspective I share most on a given day, inspired by the vast differences in the tone and style of the two authors – and my ever-changing thoughts about myself, my Jewish heritage, my nation, and my life in general. Antin is sincere, earnest, and deeply patriotic as a new American. Her autobiography, The Promised Land, begins by steeping the reader in her childhood in Belarus, where her life options were limited both by Russian antisemitism and patriarchal Jewish tradition. She could learn little about the world and see even less of it. With equal precision and depth, she then shares the painful yet rewarding wonders of immigration, including earning an education, where she was favored by teachers for her eagerness to learn and her aptitude for writing – despite and perhaps also because of her immigrant worldview. Life blossoms for this hard-working, talented girl, who eventually finds a
rewarding profession as a teacher and a man to share it with. Antin declares it a miracle that she, “the granddaughter of Raphael the Russian, born to a humble destiny, should be at home in an American metropolis, be free to fashion my own life, and should dream my dreams in English phrases.” We cannot help but cheer her on as an embodiment of the American Dream, as did her contemporary audience. The Promised Land received excellent reviews upon publication, selling more than 85,000 copies over the course of Antin’s lifetime and bringing her national fame, which led her to speak publicly and persuasively to promote acceptance of immigrants.
The Polish-born Anzia Yezierska achieved significant fame as a young writer as well, although her immigrant success story led not to public speaking but to Hollywood, where her first collection of New York ghetto tales, Hungry Hearts, was made into a 1922 silent film. Yezierska had struggled through even greater challenges than Antin at first, working in sweatshops while she attended night school, and she at first enjoyed her celebrity. She could dress elegantly, eat classy food, and attend swanky parties with the cream of society. Yet, she soon found her life empty: this “Sweatshop Cinderella,” as she was nicknamed, did not fit in. When she left California, longing to return to the gritty reality of the New York ghetto, she sadly found she no longer felt welcome there either. The desire of belonging permeates her fiction, most of which is semi-autobiographical, from the rags to riches tale Salome of the Tenements to her classic story of the immigrant experience, Bread Givers, originally published in 1925, rediscovered in 1975, and still in print today.
Unlike Antin’s The Promised Land, the novel Bread Givers takes place entirely in the US. Its title refers to the burden put on a family of girls, including the protagonist, Sara Smolinsky, the youngest of four daughters in an impoverished, pious Jewish household. The sisters are forced to work at whatever they can get to support their parents, including their
overwrought mother and domineering father, who feels his religious studies should take precedence over all else. The family patriarch tells his girls that they, like their mother, should find it an honor serve him, while he reads his holy books and meets with likeminded men and the local rabbi. This lifestyle, of course, does not suit their new country, where piety does not pay and girls can be educated and marry for love. Much of the novel is devoted to Reb Smolinsky’s naïve cruelty, including his terrible choices of husbands for his daughters and inability to manage money, alongside Sara’s determination to escape the sad fate he brings down upon his other, more obedient daughters.
Sara’s fierceness (her father’s nickname for her is “Blood and Iron”) drives us through the novel, as does the author’s keen ear for Yiddish diction and immigrant accents. If Antin declares her determination to succeed in clear, precise English prose, then Yezierska’s Sara shouts and cries it out in emotive, simple language on every page. Antin takes us on a purposeful, compelling voyage; Yezierska leads a wild, rocky ride.
Some days, I need to see life as comprehensible, meaningful. Other days, I recognize its struggle and chaotic complexity. I return to the Jewish feminist tales of eager, self-confident Antin and intense, neurotic Yezierska for pointers. Regardless of your generation or your gender, I am pleased to recommend them both to you.
Author bio: Elyce Rae Helford, PhD, (www.elycehelford.com) is professor of English and director of Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. Her most recent book is What Price Hollywood?: Gender and Sex in the Films of George Cukor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.