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Discussing the work of Anzia Yezierska: her voice on cultural assimilation

Updated on July 1, 2017

Anzia Yezierska


Thoughts on the works of Anzia Yezierska

Many eastern European immigrant women struggled to survive in their own homelands and dreamed of finding a place for their traditional Jewish culture as they became Americanized by their new surroundings. For the immigrants who spoke English the conversion process was slightly easier s compared to someone who could not read, write or even speak English. Not all immigrant stories are about suffering or extreme poverty, but that is definitely the common theme among Anzia Yezherska’s stories. Many people daydreamed about all the stories they had heard growing up in their homelands about the “New World”. Many came here with high hopes and even expectations of finding themselves a husband. Some even hoped to one day become successful members of their communities and business owners. Maxine Seller talks about the immigrants that were out in the world breaking stereotypes, the same stereo types that I felt myself almost leaning to when I was reading FAT OF THE LAND and LOST BEAUTIFULNESS.

The Character of Hanneh Breineh struggled with her conversion from Polish Immigrant into an American housewife, mother, and citizen. Trying to raise more than more child in poverty seems like a nightmare, especially the thought of six children and two adults crammed into a one room city apartment. Hanneh felt as though the odds were against her in both stories. From the man that was supposed to fix her boiler, the landlord, the shop owners, and even her children. She refers to her children as “savages, blood-suckers, murderers” because they are always hungry and feels as though her life isn’t worth anything to anyone, not even her. “Why comes it to me so hard?” went on Hanneh Breineh, the tears streaming down her cheeks “I came into you for a minute to run away from my troubles. It’s only when I sit myself down to peel potatoes or nurse the baby that take time to draw a breath, and beg only for death.” (p.3 Yezherska: Fat of the Land) She doesn’t seem to be living the American dream at all and is caught in a transitional purgatory. She verbally abuses her children as they are growing up and wonders why they grew into adults that have no patience for her. Her neighbor Mrs. Pelz reminds Hanneh that the same mouths that she has to feed everyday will be the ones that will take care of her in old age. “Wait only till your children get old enough to go to the shop and earn money, “ she consoled. “ Push only through those few years while they are yet small, your sun will begin to shine, you will live on the fat of the land, when they begin to bring you in wages each week.” (p.4 Yezherska)

Amazingly; 20 years later, Mrs. Pelz prediction for Hanneh and her family comes true. Even though Hanneh is able to live in a higher class neighborhood and move up in status or social class she was still unhappy. Instead of the Cinderella fairy tale ending that I was hoping for; Hanneh is just as miserable as a rich person as she was when she was dirt poor. She found herself day dreaming again about her life on Delancy Street. “What grand times we had in that old house when we were neighbors!” sighed Hannah Breineh, looking at her old friend with misty eyes.” (p.9 Yezherska) If I would have been her friend I would have screamed! “What good times!?! You were miserable and complained about your kids constantly!” What might have held Mrs. Pelz back was her husband needed a job, so calling Hanneh spoiled or selfish probably would not have gone over very well. I know that what Hanneh was holding onto was her ethnic identity; instead of longing for Poland like she did when she was poor, she fantasized about living in Poverty on Delancy Street. There she had her former peers and subculture, she was able to complain as much as she wanted because everyone was struggling and living day to day. Any so many years later she has an endless void that cannot be filled by anything. “Between living up to my Fifth-Avenue daughter and keeping up with the servants. I am like a sinner in the next world that is thrown from one hell to another.” (p.10 Yezherska).

Mr. & Mrs. Pelz’s conversion story is not an unfamiliar one to anyone that struggles to make ends meet. But in this story, things had actually come around full circle for them. They found themselves back where they started so many years ago and in the same neighborhood. I don’t think that this is anything that they did on purpose because they loved the ghetto; I think it was because they had nowhere else to go and what they knew was life on Delancy Street. They had done it once and Mrs. Pelz probably prayed and hoped that her husband could secure work so they could move out of there a second time. At the beginning of the story Mrs. Pelz seems to be adjusted to her new way of life in America. Even though she brings up the fact that she was a cook for a banker on Poland, she doesn’t pity herself for the way she is living now. She was flattered when Hanneh praised her cooking and was able to be involved in her community by being a major source of emotional support to her neighbor. The story doesn’t tell you if they had children of their own, but I assumed that they didn’t since many years later she is asking Hanneh to help her husband get a job. She has reassured Hanneh that her success will come through her children and was very happy to see that her predictions came true. She wasn’t there to ask Hanneh for money or to make her feel guilty for her wealth; but was surprised to see that Hanneh was not satisfied with how her life turned out. “Oi weh! How it shines from you! You ought to kiss the air and dance for happiness. It is such a bitter frost from outside; a pail of coal is so dear, and you got it so warm with steam heat. I had to pawn my feather bed to have enough for rent, and you are rolling in money.” (p.10 Yezherska) Even this comment doesn’t seem to pull Hanneh back into reality and show her that she should be grateful for the things that she has now, especially when Hanneh shows up on her doorstep on Delancy Street wearing a fur coat still complaining in the “midst of riches and plenty.” She tells her unhappy friend that she thinks she has it too good. “The only trouble with you is that you got it too good. People will tear the eyes out of your head because you’re complaining yet. If only I had your fur coat! If I only had your diamonds! I have nothing. You have everything. You are living on the fat of the land. You go right back home and thank God that you don’t have my bitter lot.” (p.24 Yezherska)

The children’s conversion into success was not an easy one either. They grew up in extreme poverty with not enough food to eat. All of them crammed into a tiny apartment. I don’t see them as forgetting who they are but it is obvious that they want to forget about where they came from. They are trying to be around a higher class of people and enjoy all the things that they had worked so hard for. They transitioned full force from Polish Immigrant children to Polish-American citizens. Fanny refers to a “black shadow” that her mother constantly reminds her of in a negative way because her childhood was not one of picnics, quality education, full bellies or even kind words. I don’t think Fanny is ashamed of her ethnic background but is more worried about the negative stereotype of the ignorant, dirty immigrant that her mother may be reminiscing on. The children want their mother to be happy for once not just with herself but for what they have accomplished in their lives as adults. But “undoubtedly life was too much for some immigrant women. Broken homes, physical and mental illness, despair, even suicide were all too often present in the ethnic ghetto.” (p.67 Seller) Couldn’t this also be the same things that an immigrant woman who is now higher class suffers from? Could this be the problem with Hanneh that she suffered from mental illness or despair? Or maybe her unhappiness started when she came into America. Arriving in the “new alien culture, cut off from loved ones left behind, and in many case forced to violate religious tendencies held dear, immigrants frequently spent lifetimes trying to reconcile what they had left behind with what they had gained.”(p.3 Sarna and Golden) Her story metaphorically symbolizes the disillusionment of many immigrants and the Jewish experience in Europe or Russia vs. Jewish experience in America.

I think everyone, every social class; every nationality had their own unique conversion experience. Male’s had the responsibility of usually coming to American first, finding a place to live and then sending for their family. They were truly thrown into a sink or swim situation and were forced to adapt very quickly to their new surroundings. Men came from male dominated societies and were used to being the breadwinners and the head of the house. Women were more than willing to join the work force, become involved in their communities and even rally for their rights to vote. Many immigrant cultures have made a lasting impression and many contributions to American culture and life. The characters we focused on were indeed female (Hanneh, Mrs. Pelz, Fanny in FAT OF THE LAND, Henneh’s reappearance in LOST BEAUTIFULNESS and FREE VACATION HOME, and Shennah in HUNGER) and they all had their own hardships and burdens to bear throughout each story. When I read SOAP and WATER I chose to think of that character as Shennah as well. Proud, determined, not willing to give up and not afraid to work hard to succeed.

“Immigrant women built social, charitable, and educational institutions that spanned the neighborhoods and the nation. They established day care centers, restaurants, hotels, employment agencies, and legal aid bureaus. They wrote novels, plays and poetry. They campaigned for a variety of causes, from factory legislation to birth control from cleaner streets to a better government. (p60 Seller)

Works cited:

Seller, Maxine S. Beyohd the Stereotype: A New Look at the Immigrant Woman, 1880-1924. Journal of Ethnic Studies, 3:1 (1975: Spring)

“Fat of the Land” Anzia Yezierska

Sarna, Johnathan D. & Golden, Johnathan. The American Jewish Experience through the 19th Century: Immigration and Acculturation, Brandeis University-National Humanities Center (internet source)


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