Anzia Yezierska

Courtesy of Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers

Anzia Yezierska (1880-1970) was a Jewish immigrant from the Russian-Polish village of Plinsk, Poland.  She was the youngest of nine children and her father, Baruch, was a devout Talmudic scholar who did not work outside of the home. Her oldest brother immigrated to the Lower East Side of New York in 1884 and the rest of the family followed in 1890. Once they arrived, Baruch (whose name was changed to Bernard on Ellis Island) refused to work outside of the home, so Anzia’s mother and siblings took on various menial jobs to support their family. Yezierska herself was able to attend an American public school for two years before she too hired herself out as a domestic servant. Eventually, however, she left her family due to frequent domestic disputes with her conservative father. She began to live on her own in Clara De Hirsch Home for Working Girls. She got accepted to Columbia University’s Teachers College and attended it from 1901 to 1905. From 1908 to 1913, Yezierska worked as an elementary school teacher. Afterward, she worked as a writer and social worker and moved to San Francisco in 1916. Yezierska died in 1970 of a stroke.

During her lifetime, Yezierska published several short story collections and books, all of which reflected on the struggles that Jewish immigrants faced in assimilating to life in the United States. Her first short story collection, Hungry Hearts, was published in 1920 and was made into a Hollywood film. Other works include the short story collection Children of Loneliness (1922), and the novels Salome of the Tenements (1922), Bread Givers (1925), Arrogant Beggar (1927), All I Could Never Be (1932) and Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950).  Many of her works were based on her own experiences in the United States. Bread Givers particularly was based on her adolescent experiences in living in a household dominated by a religious conservative father who tried to control the fates of all of her siblings while refusing to work himself. Today, over three hundred thousand copies of the book have been sold. According to New York Times critic Vivian Gornick, “Yezierska captures American hunger with extraordinary intensity” in this novel.

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