In Bread Givers, those who make someone else an integral part of realizing their dreams inevitably wind up being failed by the other person. Mrs. Smolinsky hopes that the grocery store will finally mean a steady income for her family, but her husband, who insists on making the purchase, allows the previous owner to scam him. Sara puts all of her young, romantic hopes into Morris Lipkin and the beautiful words he writes, only to have him crush her dreams with a curt rejection. Mashah puts all of her dreams of beauty and love into Jacob Novak, only to find that he is willing to sacrifice her for the sake of his music. Sara hopes to share her new dedication to knowledge with her father, but he disowns her for failing to get married. Reb Smolinsky marries Mrs. Feinstein with the hope that she’ll be as wonderful and dedicated a wife as Mrs. Smolinsky had been, but he finds himself trapped with a demanding, money-grubbing shrew who wants him to die. Only Sara’s dream of becoming a teacher, which depends only on Sara herself, is ever fulfilled.
In Bread Givers, familial duty is what most often holds characters back from getting what they really want. Bessie’s sense of duty to her father keeps her from accepting Berel’s proposal and running away with him, and Jacob Novak’s obligation to his father keeps him away from Mashah and makes him break her heart. Because of their obligations to family, both Bessie and Mashah lose the people they want to be with forever. After enduring years of her father’s mistreatment, Bessie nearly works up the courage to escape, only to be held back by the feeling that she is the only person truly willing to take care of young Benny. Sara, for her part, is nearly able to escape hazardous obligations by refusing to see her family while she goes to school, lest they say or do something that will divert her from her education. However, guilt over not being there for her sick mother leads Sara to feel that she has an obligation to care for her father, and with Hugo’s invitation for Reb Smolinsky to live with them, Sara will soon be living under her father’s command once again.
Though several of the characters in Bread Givers have a goal or dream of some kind, achieving that goal isn’t necessarily the magic solution they hoped it would be. Bessie desperately longs to get married, but when she does, she finds that her life is filled with more unappreciated drudgery than it was when she was alone. Fania marries Abe with the hope that she can escape her father to the dream city of Los Angeles, only to find a life full of pointlessly expensive showpieces and incredible loneliness. When Sara rents her own room, she fantasizes about how wonderful and enriching it will be finally to have some space to herself, only to find herself desperately longing for someone to talk to. When her hard work finally pays off and she gets a teaching job, Sara is surprised to find that it doesn’t make her feel as complete as she hoped it would. Hugo Seelig seems to fill this hole, but his insistence that they would love to have Sara’s father live with them leaves her with a nagging fear that her independent identity will suffer.
Nearly all of the men in the novel fail to provide sufficiently for the women in their lives. Reb Smolinsky denies his family sufficient finances and wisdom, refusing to contribute any money to the household and either giving away or making foolish choices with the money his children bring in. According to Jewish faith, only men are allowed to study the Torah. Women are destined only to ease the lives of the men in their families, keeping them fed and clothed so they need to do nothing more than focus on the holy word. This service should be a woman’s highest aspiration, because the Torah teaches that it is only through a man that a woman can enter heaven. The men in a woman’s life define her very existence. The title of the novel, Bread Givers, refers to the inadequacy of the men in the Smolinsky women’s lives: though the women refer to men as “bread givers,” they themselves must do the largest share of the providing.
Reb Smolinsky’s wisdom also fails his daughters in another way, as his authority to choose their husbands traps his three oldest into unhappy and sometimes abusive marriages. Mashah’s husband fails her and his children in every way possible, denying them basic necessities while he can afford to eat out and buy himself fancy new clothing. Though Fania’s husband keeps her well fed and draped in fancy clothing, he holds so much back from her emotionally that she feels more alone with him than she did when she was single. Sara’s teachers at the college fail her academically, not willing to take any extra time to help her satisfy her voracious need for knowledge. None of these men give the women in the novel what they need to survive, leaving them either to perish or, as Sara did, to learn how to fulfill their own needs.
Bread Givers is full of men and even women oppressing other women, so much so that many women consider oppression an acceptable way of life. Reb Smolinsky constantly berates his far-wiser wife for attempting to make decisions and demands all of his daughters’ wages for his own use. He denies his older daughters a chance at happiness, pushing their sweethearts away because he resents not having chosen them himself. Mashah’s husband emotionally abuses her and doesn’t allow her to defend herself or her children against his injustice. Max Goldstein oppresses Sara in a more subtle manner, constantly attempting to deny her the right to have her own thoughts and opinions. Women even oppress other women. One refuses to rent Sara a single room because of her gender, and the female servers at the cafeteria consider her less worthy of meat than the man standing behind her in line. Sara must fight against this oppression nearly every moment of her life, which emphasizes her struggle to gain acceptance on the strength of her own identity.
At several points in Bread Givers, people express a desire to get out and enjoy life, though none of them ever seem able to fulfill that wish. After Bessie meets Berel, she tells her mother that they should save less and enjoy life more—but her ability to enjoy life is crushed when Berel leaves. Sara complains that instead of geometry she wants to learn subjects that will help her truly live her life, but she is taunted for that desire for the rest of her time in school. Fania berates Sara for studying by telling her she should get out and enjoy life, but Fania herself has admitted on several occasions that her own life gives her no pleasure at all. Sara nearly rejects her studying for Max’s sake because he makes her feel more fun and full of life, but she later discovers that Max’s pleasure is hollow and not dependent on any interest in Sara herself. The characters’ desire to live life is truly a desire to escape into a new life, a process that takes far more work than a simple wish.
The internal light that several characters in Bread Givers either have or are seeking symbolizes their self-chosen purpose for living. Reb Smolinsky spends all hours of his day devoting himself to understanding the Torah and other holy works, and many people talk about the light that shines constantly from his face. This is especially true whenever he’s expounding on a scripture or holy principle. Love for Jacob Novak is what finally brings light to Mashah’s face, as she turns her time and energy from maintaining her own appearance to tending to Jacob’s every need. Yezierska talks about the innocent light that shines from young Benny’s face, and Bessie decides that caring for him will be the purpose that makes her marriage to an old fish peddler tolerable. Sara spends most of the novel struggling to get an education, hoping to find a purpose that will define her life the way religion defines her father’s. She admires Hugo Seelig so much because he is lit by that purpose. The light of knowledge shines from him and touches everyone he knows.
For Sara, the chance to be alone represents the achievement of her own identity. When she was growing up, her father was always allowed time and space to be alone with his books while he forced the women to crowd together in the remaining available space. After finally defying her father and running away back to New York, the first thing Sara does is eat a meal with just herself for company, reveling in her independence. She believes that a room where she can be by herself, her next goal, will give her the chance to focus on studying and be free from the pressures of her family. She prefers solitude to being with Max because, though he is fun to be with, he tries to make her into a perfect little possession instead of the teacher she wants to become. When she does become a teacher, she buys another little room of her own to celebrate the experience. It is larger and much cleaner than the first, but more important, it’s even quieter and more isolated, as safe from dirt and shouting as she wants her life to be from poverty and her past.
Sara spends most of the book wanting to become a “real” person, an unreachable state of being that symbolizes everything she believes a successful and happy person should be and have. Early in her life, a major qualification for being successful and happy is money. According to Sara, real people also sit down for dinner at a table and go out and earn their own money. This idea urges her at a young age to sell herring on the street. Later, being real means living on her own, where she has the space and the quiet to figure out who she’s supposed to be. When she finally becomes a teacher, she believes she is real for a while. However, Mr. Seelig shines with a greater internal light than she does, and she decides this light is what it takes to be real. In Sara’s mind, it’s impossible for her to become a real person: no matter what she does with her life, there will always be some better and more perfect thing to be.