Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Internal Light

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.

A “Real” Person

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.