Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Hazards of Dependence

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.

The Conflict Between Independence and Family Obligations

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.

The Elusiveness of Happiness

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.