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The highest aspiration for a Jewish girl was to become a teacher, a goal that went against many of the norms at the time. However, becoming a teacher meant the family had to support her in school until she was eighteen or nineteen, and most immigrants couldnt afford such an expense, even with the promise of future returns. If a choice had to be made between sending a daughter or a son to college, parents often chose to send the son because of both religious beliefs and economic reality. The old world and new world were in complete agreement on what a woman should be allowed to do with her life, and Yezierska had to fight to pursue a different path.

Certain factors, however, precluded the permanence of such a restricting arrangement for women. Instead of becoming shy, submissive workers, generations of Polish women became aggressive and articulate, more than capable of holding their own in the world. With the men secluded in religious study, wives and daughters assumed much of the economic burden. They brought in the wages, spotted cheats, haggled over prices, and slowly but surely learned skills that left them better able to transverse the wider world.

These women then immigrated to America, full of stories of people with similar skills who had managed to shape new lives for themselves. Though it didnt happen immediately, Jewish women began to be tempted by the possibility of new lives, and they focused on education as the logical starting point for building them.


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Some Jewish girls, Yezierska included, left home to pursue their dreams; others persuaded their mothers to persuade their fathers to allow them to do so. Whatever the method, Jewish girls began to take the first step in finding their own identity, and by , more than half of the Jewish graduates of Hunter College, one of the prominent schools in the New York City area, were women.

Plot Overview The Smolinsky family is on the verge of starvation. The older daughters, Bessie, Mashah, and Fania, cant find work, and Mashah spends what little money she has to make herself look more beautiful. Their father, Reb Smolinsky, doesnt work at all, spending his days reading holy books and commandeering his daughters wageshis due as a Jewish father. When Mrs. Smolinsky despairs over the situation, the youngest daughter, Sara, promptly goes outside to sell herring and makes the family some money. Later, the older girls find jobs, and Mrs.

Jewish Americans: Moving from Exile to Authorship, Abraham Cahan and Anzia Yezierska

Smolinsky rents out the second room, improving the familys financial situation. Quiet, dutiful Bessie soon falls for a young man named Berel Berenstein and invites him home for dinner one night. The rest of the family is excited for Bessie, but when Reb Smolinsky finds out, he decides he cant live without the wages Bessie brings in.

Though Berel is willing to marry Bessie without a dowry, her father says Berel must also pay for the entire wedding and set him up in business as well. Berel refuses and storms out. When he says Bessie should defy her crazy father and marry him at City Hall, Bessie says she doesnt dare.

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Berel promptly gets engaged to someone else, crushing Bessies spirit. Mashah is the next daughter to find a romance that Reb Smolinsky considers inappropriate. She falls in love with Jacob Novak, a piano player from a rich family. Mashahs father disapproves of the match and blackmails Jacob into staying away for several days, breaking Mashahs heart. When Jacob comes back to beg for forgiveness, Mashah feels defeated enough to stand by and let her father kick Jacob out for playing piano on the Sabbath.

Reb Smolinsky also disapproves of Fanias sweetheart, a poor poet named Morris Lipkin, and shames him away. He then arranges marriages for all three girls, which leave them all desperately unhappy. Sara is furious with her father for what hes done to her sisters, but her age and gender leave her powerless. Despite Mrs. Smolinskys warning, Reb Smolinsky takes all of the money he got from Bessies marriage and sinks it into a grocery store that the previous owner had filled with fake stock. Sara and Mrs. Smolinsky must again scramble for survival, and each day they endure. One day, Sara reaches her breaking point.

She runs away from home and decides to become a teacher. She plans to live with either Bessie or Mashah, but both have been beaten down by poverty and bad marriages.

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Instead, she rents a small, dirty, private room of her own. To pay for it, Sara finds a day job in a laundry, using her nights to study and take classes. The life Sara has chosen is not easy. She faces discrimination for being a woman and living alone; her fellow workers ostracize her; her mother begs her to come home more often; and her unhappy sisters nag her to find a husband of her own. On top of all this, Sara is desperately lonely, and when she is visited by an acquaintance of Fanias, Max Goldstein, she nearly marries him and gives up her dream of seeking knowledge.

When she realizes Max is interested only in possessions, however, she refuses him. When Reb Smolinsky hears of this, hes so furious with Sara that he promptly disowns her. College is another struggle against poverty and loneliness, but Sara wants so badly to be like the clean, beautiful people around her that she perseveres and graduates.

She gets a job in the New York school system, buys nicer clothing, and rents a cleaner, larger apartment as a celebration of her new financial independence. Her excitement ends quickly, however, when she learns that her mother, whom she hasnt visited in six years, is dying. Though her mothers deathbed wish is that Sara take care of her father, Reb Smolinsky quickly gets remarried to Mrs. Feinstein, a widow who lives upstairs. His daughters are deeply offended by this insult to their mother, and after Mrs.

Feinstein tries to extort money from her new stepchildren, all of them decide to stop speaking to their father. Furious at her unexpected poverty, Mrs. Feinstein writes a nasty letter to Hugo Seelig, the principal of Saras school. The letter, however, actually draws Hugo and Sara together, and their bond tightens as they talk of their shared heritage in Poland.

This new relationship finally marks the end of Saras loneliness, and in her new happiness, she decides once again to reach out to her father. Hugo does this as well, and the novel ends with the implication that Reb Smolinsky will soon escape his new wife by moving in with Hugo and Sara. Saras life has come full circle. The most fiercely independent of Reb Smolinskys daughters, Sara wants more than any of them to create a life of her own.

Though she admires her fathers dedication and inner flame, she is also deeply resentful of his hypocrisy and the chances he has denied all his daughters. She develops crushes on men with similar dedication and fire, seeking a more willing and understanding role model than Reb Smolinsky, as well as a companion who will acknowledge and appreciate the identity shes struggled to build.

Sara is willing to work hard to get what she wants, but her ceaseless craving for companionship and tendency to romanticize her situation sometimes distract her from her ultimate goal. Read an in-depth analysis of Sara Smolinsky. Reb Smolinsky - The head of the Smolinsky family and Saras major antagonist. Extremely dedicated in his religious beliefs, Reb Smolinsky has devoted his entire life to studying the Torah and other Jewish holy books.

The spirit he gathers from these studies fills him with a holy light that leaves others in awe but causes family problems when Reb Smolinsky confuses.

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His innocence often leads him to make foolish decisions that he refuses to acknowledge, insisting that a man as learned as he could never make such mistakes. After his wife dies, he remarries quickly and forces his daughters to remain with him as long as possible because he knows he needs someone to take care of him.

Read an in-depth analysis of Reb Smolinsky. Shena Smolinsky - Saras mother and Reb Smolinskys long-suffering wife. Shena is truly in awe of her husbands holiness, though she complains bitterly about the poverty it forces on her. She also feels protective of her husbandhe lives so much in his own world that its hard for him to function in the real one.

She firmly believes a womans highest aspiration is to be a wife and mother, and despite her husbands manipulations, she genuinely wishes to see her daughters settled into good marriages. Though she doesnt understand why Sara desires a different route, she loves her enough to support her in the best way she can. Bessie Smolinsky - The oldest Smolinsky daughter. Bessie is the major financial support for the family, and even at a young age she is worn out from constant stress and work. She despises her father for using up all her good years for himself but is afraid to leave because providing for others is the only life she knows.

Resentful of her status as an old maid, Bessie finds joy in her eventual marriage to Zalmon only because of the affection that her youngest stepson, Benny, feels for her.

Giving is Getting (lesson 1 of 3)

The only reason Bessie agrees to marry Zalmon is that Benny needs her. Read an in-depth analysis of Bessie Smolinsky. Mashah Smolinsky - One of the middle Smolinsky daughters. Mashah is extremely beautiful, and the rest of the family thinks she is vain. In fact, Mashah needs beauty to sustain her, and her own looks, as well as the music in the park, are the only resources she has. She falls in love with the music Jacob Novak makes before she even sees Jacob himself, and when he breaks her heart, he destroys her hope of finding any more beauty in the world.

She wastes away to a worn, quiet shadow of her former self, and hints of her former spirit show only in her enjoyment of her children and the cleanliness of her small house. Read an in-depth analysis of Mashah Smolinsky. Fania Smolinsky - One of the middle Smolinsky daughters.

Comfortable with speaking her mind, Fania goes further than either Bessie or Mashah in defending her sweetheart. However, Fania is also more practical than her sisters and attempts to make her fathers choice of husband work for her.

source link Ultimately unsuccessful, she complains bitterly about her marriage at every opportunity and, though she frequently derides Saras accomplishments, appears jealous of her sisters, as well.