Yezierska, Anzia (ca. 1880-1970)
Polish-born American critic and writer
The Slavic memoirist Anzia Yezierska recreated stories, novels, and articles filled with the peasant customs that eastern European immigrants transported to the New World. Born to a downtrodden mother and an orthodox Jewish scholar in Plinsk, then within the Polish-Russian territory near present-day Belarus, she lived in a mud hut and grew up amid the pogroms, military conscription, and cruelties of the Russian Empire that the Russian-American author Mary Antin (18811949) described in her immigrant autobiography The Promised Land (1912). At age 10, Yezierska's family reached Hester Street in New York City's Lower East Side, a Jewish microcosm that the Danish-American chronicler-photographer Jacob Riis (1849-1914) described in How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890). In “How I Found America” (1920), Yezierska reported that in Plinsk, every footstep had sounded like Cossack boots coming to enforce the czar's edict with a whiplash.
The Yezierskas pawned their possessions for 100 rubles to pay the way to America in steerage. In fealty to shtetl (ghetto) customs, her parents, Pearl and Reb Bernard Yezierska, continued allotting the gendered privileges that sent Anzia's three brothers to school and relegated the author and her three sisters to domestic drudgery. Anzia learned English in night school while operating a sweatshop sewing machine by day. The long days were the beginning of her transformation into a tenement Cinderella. At age 23, she enrolled in home economics at Columbia University and supported herself by doing laundry until she could locate teaching jobs.
In 1910, she married Jacob Gordon, an attorney, but the marriage was annulled after six months. Soon after, she married Arnold Levitas but subsequently left him because of his patriarchal views. She moved to San Francisco with their daughter, whom she eventually sent to live with Levitas. She then moved back to New York City. Yezierska developed her writing career with Yiddish-English essays, book reviews for the New York Times, and Yiddish-English dialect anecdotes and short stories issued in Bookman, Century, Cosmopolitan, Forum, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s, and Scribner’s. She gained notoriety for “The Fat of the Land,” an immigrant domestic tale published in The Best Short Stories of 1919. In Hungry Hearts and Other Stories (1920), she expanded on the ethnic isolation of American Jews and on women demoralized by Old World patriarchy. The work found favor with the Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, who hired her to coauthor a screenplay based on the collection. Yezierska abandoned Hollywood and returned to New York and the people she loved and understood. In the feminist novel Salome of the Tenements (1923), she focused her creative vision on a fictional hero, Sonya Vrunsky, a relentless social climber. Sonya's future husband, Protestant philanthropist John Manning, commissions her to rescue Polish Russians like herself from the underclass: “You have the burning fire of the Russian Jew in you… . The real liberation of your people must come from within—from such as you” (Yezierska 1995, 3).
Yezierska's classic dialect novel Bread Givers (1925) expresses the need of first-generation American women to throw off household patriarchy and to assimilate into post-suffrage freedoms. The semiautobiographical protagonist, Sara Smolinsky, longs to seize the liberty that females enjoy in the United States, particularly control of courtship, marriage, motherhood, and career. She acknowledges the burden of an androcentric Russian tradition derived from the tyranny of Czar Alexander III and his predecessor: “It wasn't just my father, but the generations who made my father whose weight was still upon me” (297). In 1950, Yezierska contrasted Polish-Russian values with the materialism of New York City and Hollywood in a fictional AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Red Ribbon on a White Horse: My Story. The narrative features the low self-respect that dwellers of the ghetto conceal along with their disillusion in America, which they fantasize as their refuge from Russian czardom. Anzia Yezierska died in Ontario, California, on November 21, 1970.
Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers. New York: Persea Books, 2003.
------- . How I Found America: Collected Stories. New
York: Persea Books, 2003.
------- . Hungry Hearts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920. . Red Ribbon on a White Horse: My Story. New
York: Persea Books, 2004.
----- . Salome of the Tenements. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Zipperstein, Steven J. Imagining Russian Jewry: Memory History, Identity. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.