Anzia Yezierska (1881?-1970)
Contributing Editor: Sally Ann Drucker
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Because Yezierska often uses a first-person narrator who speaks with a great deal of emotional intensity, readers sometimes assume that her stories are strictly autobiographical. In addition, her use of Yiddish-English dialect can obscure the fact that she crafted these stories deliberately and carefully. Readers unfamiliar with Yezierska may focus on how these stories relate to episodes in her life, rather than on her vivid characters, rich imagery, and adept use of dialect.
It can be helpful to discuss one of Yezierska's purposes in writing-- to immerse the reader in the ghetto experience. (She also wished to explore her own feelings and to earn a living in the process.) In addition, although most readers come from backgrounds totally different from that of her characters, her stories can be discussed in terms of contemporary problems encountered by new immigrants, ghetto youth, working-class employees, and women.
Photos of Lower East Side tenement scenes or films such as Hester Street (based on Yekl) are useful to set up a visual context for Yezierska's writing.
Yezierska's most-taught novel is Bread Givers. In that book, the patriarchal father represents traditional Jewish ways. Because of the negative aspects of the father-daughter relationship, students who are not familiar with Jewish culture come away with a skewed view of it. Even in Yezierska's other works, what the heroine is giving up in order to become Americanized--family and culture--may not be readily apparent, given the heroine's economic and status gains from the process. These issues can be clarified in class discussion.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The processes of acculturation and assimilation, and the positive and negative effects of these processes, are ongoing themes in Yezierska's writing. Her work is particularly interesting for its presentation of immigrant women's pursuit of the American Dream. "America and I" was originally published in 1922, right before immigration laws changed (1924), restricting access to everyone not from northern or western Europe. This may have affected the way Yezierska ended the story (see last paragraph).
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Yezierska's work has been called sentimental and melodramatic. It is important to understand that in the Yiddish language tradition that she came out of, emotionality was expected, particularly for women. Her work fuses aspects of realism (attention to detail) and romanticism (characters' idealism), ultimately making it difficult to categorize.
Yezierska's stories were first published in magazines that had a general readership. She wrote primarily for mainstream Anglo-American audiences of the '20s, although her work was certainly seen by Jewish-Americans and other ethnic readers as well. Contemporary audiences, particularly female readers, respond especially to the immigrant waif characters as women who forged cultural and economic identities by their own strength, energy, and perseverance.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Works on immigrant Jewish life in this volume include the folowing:
The Promised Land, by Mary Antin
Yekl, by Abraham Cahan
Jews Without Money, by Michael Gold
"Tell Me a Riddle" by Tillie Olsen
Other works on immigrant life excerpted in this volume include the following:
Yezierskas's story can also be compared with stories and poems written about/by other immigrant/ethnic groups. There are many in this volume.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. It can be useful to ask about conflicts described in her writing: in this story, old versus new, expectations versus reality; in other stories, Jewish tradition versus American opportunity, parent versus child.
2. General: Oral histories--students interview members of their families, focusing on questions of cultural transitions, such as rural tourban, one decade to another, immigrant conflicts, etc. Papers--on working-class women in early twentieth-century literature, on the Americanization process in literature.
3. Specific: Papers comparing this story with some of Yezierska's others in Hungry Hearts or Children of Loneliness.
Baum, Charlotte, et. al. The Jewish Woman in America. New York: Dial Press, 1976. Chapters 3, 4, 5, 91-162.
Drucker, Sally Ann. "Yiddish, Yidgin & Yezierska." Modern Jewish Studies Annual VI (1987): 99-113.
Henriksen, Louise Levitas. "Afterword About Anzia Yezierska." In The Open Cage: An Anzia Yezierska Collection. New York: Persea Books, 1979, 253-62.
Kessler-Harris, Alice. "Introduction." In The Open Cage: An Anzia Yezierska Collection. New York: Persea Books, 1979, v-xiii.
Pratt, Norma Fain. "Culture and Radical Politics: Yiddish Women Writers, 1890-1940." American Jewish History 70, no. 1 (Sept. 1980): 68-90.
Yezierska, Anzia. "Mostly About Myself." In Children of Loneliness. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1923, 9-31.
Dearborn, Mary V. Love in the Promised Land: The Story of Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey. NY: Free Press, 1988.
Henriksen, Louise. Anzia Yezierska: A Writer's Life. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988.
Schoen, Carol B. Anzia Yezierska. Boston: Twayne, 1982.