The youngest Smolinsky daughter and narrator of Bread Givers. The most fiercely independent of Reb Smolinsky’s daughters, Sara wants more than any of them to create a life of her own. Though she admires her father’s 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 she’s 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.
The head of the Smolinsky family and Sara’s 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 this spiritual knowledge with more worldly wisdom. 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.
Sara’s mother and Reb Smolinsky’s long-suffering wife. Shena is truly in awe of her husband’s holiness, though she complains bitterly about the poverty it forces on her. She also feels protective of her husband—he lives so much in his own world that it’s hard for him to function in the real one. She firmly believes a woman’s highest aspiration is to be a wife and mother, and despite her husband’s manipulations, she genuinely wishes to see her daughters settled into good marriages. Though she doesn’t understand why Sara desires a different route, she loves her enough to support her in the best way she can.
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. The only reason Bessie agrees to marry Zalmon is that Benny needs her.
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.
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 father’s choice of husband work for her. Ultimately unsuccessful, she complains bitterly about her marriage at every opportunity and, though she frequently derides Sara’s accomplishments, appears jealous of her sisters, as well. Though she lives across the country, Fania keeps in regular contact with her mother and sisters.
The clothing cutter with whom Bessie falls in love. An ambitious young man who plans to open his own shop, Berel wants to marry Bessie because she’s a sensible, competent girl who would be a great help in running his business. Somewhat sporadic in his religious observance, Berel thinks anyone who clings to the old ways is crazy and has no patience for anyone who attempts to make him follow those ways.
The school principal with whom Sara falls in love. An intelligent, well-respected man, Hugo is filled with the knowledge that Sara longs for and admires. A kind man who treats everyone with respect, Hugo puts far more value on his personal observations about people than on what others might say about them. Hugo still feels a great bond with the old country and the customs he was raised with, and he holds Reb Smolinsky’s learning in awe.
The poet with whom Fania falls in love. A pale young man with a shabby coat and a desperate need for a haircut, Morris believes strongly in the power of both love and poetry. When Reb Smolinsky forces Fania away from him, however, he becomes bitter enough to crush Sara when she comes to him with her own dreams. Morris earns a living writing for newspapers and spends his free time at the library.
The piano player with whom Mashah falls in love. The son of wealthy parents, Jacob has grown up with money but doesn’t share his father’s prejudice against those who haven’t. Though he cares deeply for Mashah, Jacob loves music more than anything else and will temporarily sacrifice even Mashah in order to continue performing it.
The diamond dealer Reb Smolinsky chooses to be Mashah’s husband. A charming and generous man on the surface, Moe is in fact a calculating liar who will say anything to get what he wants. Unable to hold down a regular job, he emotionally abuses Mashah and thinks nothing of dining out and wearing fancy clothes while his wife and children starve.
The fish peddler Reb Smolinsky chooses to be Bessie’s husband. A basically honest man who desperately needs help caring for his children, Zalmon genuinely means to give Bessie everything he promises her during their courtship. However, he is too conservative to bother finding out what might actually win her over—one of many concerns he feels is too “Americanized.”
The cloaks-and-suits dealer Reb Smolinsky chooses to be Fania’s husband. Abe substitutes expensive presents for genuine affection or attention, both during courtship and after he and Fania return to Los Angeles. A compulsive gambler, Abe uses his wife’s appearance to show the world how affluent he is.
Abe’s partner, who comes to New York to court Sara. A self-made businessman who is derisive of the education he never had, Max is completely focused on money, possessions, and potential profit. During his time with Sara, he flaunts his wealth and worldliness instead of showing any interest in her needs.
Reb Smolinsky’s second wife. Originally a widow who lived above the Smolinskys’ place, Mrs. Feinstein pretends to be a supportive woman but truthfully cares only about financial gain. She feels life owes her a certain amount of wealth, and when she doesn’t get it, she takes vengeance on everyone around her.