The following is from Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers. Yezierska was born in Poland and came to America in 1890 when she was nine years old. By the 1920s she had risen out of poverty and become a successful writer of stories, novels; all autobiographical; and an autobiography, Red Ribbon on a White Horse. Her novel Bread Givers is considered a classic of Jewish American fiction. Her acclaimed books also include How I Found America: Collected Stories and The Open Cage. She died in 1970.
I had just begun to peel the potatoes for dinner when my oldest sister Bessie came in, her eyes far away and very tired. She dropped on the bench by the sink and turned her head to the wall.
One look at her, and I knew she had not yet found work. I went on peeling the potatoes, but I no more knew what my hands were doing. I felt only the dark hurt of her weary eyes. I was about ten years old then. But from always it was heavy on my heart the worries for the house as if I was mother. I knew that the landlord came that morning holler‑ ing for the rent. And the whole family were hanging on Bessie’s neck for her wages. Unless she got work soon, we’d be thrown in the street to shame and to laughter for the whole world.
I already saw all our things kicked out on the sidewalk like a pile of junk. A plate of pennies like a beggar’s hand reaching out of our bunch of rags. Each sign of pity from the passers‑by, each penny thrown into the plate was another stab into our burning shame.
Laughter and light footsteps broke in upon my dark thoughts. I heard the door open.
“Give a look only on these roses for my hat,” cried Mashah, running over to the looking glass over the sink. With excited fingers she pinned pink paper roses under the brim. Then, putting on her hat again, she stood herself before the cracked, fly‑stained mirror and turned her head first on this side and then on the other side, laughing to herself with the pleasure of how grand her hat was. “Like a lady from Fifth Avenue I look, and for only ten cents, from a pushcart on Hester Street.”
Again the door opened, and with dragging feet my third sister Fania came in. Bessie roused herself from the bench and asked, “Nu? Any luck with you?”
“Half the shops are closed,” replied Fania. “They say the work can’t start till they got a new president. And in one place, in a shirt factory, where they had a sign, ‘Girls Wanted,’ there was such a crowd of us tearing the clothes from our bodies and scratching out each other’s eyes in the mad push‑ ings to get in first, that they had to call two fat policemen with thick clubs to make them stand still on a line for their turn. And after we waited for hours and hours, only two girls were taken.”
Mashah looked up from the mirror.
“Didn’t I tell you not to be such a yok and kill yourself pushing on a line a mile long, when the shop itself couldn’t hold those that were already on the doorstep? All the time that you were wasting yourself waiting to get in, I walked myself through the stores, to look for a trimming for my hat.” “You heartless thing!” cried Bessie. “No wonder Father named you ‘Empty‑head.’ Here you go to look for work, and you come back with pink roses for your doll face.”
Undisturbed by the bitter words, Mashah finished the last stitch and then hung up her hat carefully over the door.
“I’m going to hear the free music in the park tonight,” she laughed to herself, with the pleasure before her, “and these pink roses on my hat to match out my pink calico will make me look just like the picture on the magazine cover.”
Bessie rushed over to Mashah’s fancy pink hat as if to tear it to pieces, but instead, she tore her own old hat from her head, flung it on the floor, and kicked it under the stove.
Mashah pushed up her shoulders and turned back to the mirror, taking the hairpins carefully from her long golden hair and fixing it in different ways. “It ain’t my fault if the shops are closed. If I take my lunch money for something pretty that I got to have, it don’t hurt you none.”
Worry or care of any kind could never get itself into Mashah’s empty head. Although she lived in the same dirt and trouble with us, nothing ever bothered her.
Everywhere Mashah went men followed her with melting looks. And these melting looks in men’s eyes were like some‑ thing to eat and something to drink to her. So that she could go without her lunch money to buy pretty things for herself, and not starve like the rest of us.
She was no more one of us than the painted lady looking down from the calendar on the wall. Father’s preaching and Mother’s cursing no more bothered her than the far‑away noise from the outside street.
When Mashah walked in the street in her everyday work dress that was cut from the same goods and bought from the same pushcart like the rest of us, it looked different on her. Her clothes were always so new and fresh, without the least little wrinkle, like the dressed‑up doll lady from the show window of the grandest department store. Like from a born queen it shined from her. The pride in her beautiful face, in her golden hair, lifted her head like a diamond crown.
Mashah worked when she had work; but the minute she got home, she was always busy with her beauty, either re‑ trimming her hat, or pressing her white collar, or washing and brushing her golden hair. She lived in the pleasure she got from her beautiful face, as Father lived in his Holy Torah. Mashah kept part of her clothes in a soapbox under the bed. Everything in it was wrapped around with newspapers to keep the dirt out. She was so smart in keeping her things in perfect order that she could push out her box from under the bed in the middle of the dark night and know exactly where to put her hand to find her thin lace collar, or her handkerchief, or even her little beauty pin for the neck of her shirtwaist.
High up with a hanger, on a nail nearly to the ceiling, so that nobody’s dirty hands should touch it, hung Mashah’s white starched petticoat, and over it her pink calico; and all around them, an old sheet was tacked about with safety pins so she could tell if anybody touched it.
It was like a law in the house that nobody dared touch Mashah’s things, no more than they dared touch Father’s He‑ brew books, or Mother’s precious jar of jelly which she al‑ ways kept ready for company, even in the blackest times, when we ourselves had nothing to eat.
Mashah came home with stories that in rich people’s homes they had silver knives and forks, separate, for each person. And new‑ironed tablecloths and napkins every time they ate on them. And rich people had marble bathtubs in their own houses, with running hot and cold water all day and night long so they could take a bath any time they felt like it, instead of having to stand on a line before the public bath‑house, as we had to do when we wanted a bath for the holidays. But these millionaire things were so far over our heads that they were like fairy tales.
That time when Mashah had work hemming towels in an uptown house, she came home with another new‑rich idea, another money‑spending thing, which she said she had to have. She told us that by those Americans, everybody in the family had a toothbrush and a separate towel for himself, “not like by us, where we use one torn piece of a shirt for the whole family, wiping the dirt from one face on to another.”
“Empty‑head!” cried Mother. “You don’t own the dirt under their doorstep and you want to play the lady.”
But when the day for the wages came, Mashah quietly went to the Five‑ and Ten‑Cent Store and bought, not only a toothbrush and a separate towel for herself, but even a sepa‑ rate piece of soap.
Mother tore her hair when she found that Mashah made a leak of thirty cents in wages where every cent had been counted out. But Mashah went on brushing her teeth with her new brush and wiping her face with her new towel. And from that day, the sight of her toothbrush on the shelf and her white, fancy towel by itself on the wall was like a sign to us all, that Mashah had no heart, no feelings, that millionaire things willed themselves in her empty head, while the rest of us were wearing out our brains for only a bite in the mouth.
As Mother opened the door and saw all my sisters home, the market basket fell from her limp arm.
“Still yet no work?” She wrung her hands. “Six hungry mouths to feed and no wages coming in.” She pointed to her empty basket. “They don’t want to trust me any more. Not the grocer, not the butcher. And the landlady is tearing from me my flesh, hollering for the rent.”
Hopelessly, she threw down her shawl and turned to me. “Did you put the potatoes on to boil?” Then her eyes caught sight of the peelings I had left in the sink.
“Gazlin! Bandit!” her cry broke through the house. She picked up the peelings and shook them before my eyes. “You’d think potatoes grow free in the street. I eat out my heart, running from pushcart to pushcart, only to bargain down a penny on five pounds, and you cut away my flesh like a murderer.”
I felt so guilty for wasting away so much good eating, I had to do something to show Mother how sorry I was. It used to be my work to go out early, every morning, while it was yet dark, and hunt through ash cans for unburned pieces of coal, and search through empty lots for pieces of wood. But that morning, I had refused to do it any more. It made me feel like a beggar and thief when anybody saw me.
“I’d sooner go to work in a shop,” I cried.
“Who’ll give you work when you’re so thin and small, like a dried‑out herring!”
“But I’m not going to let them look down on me like dirt, picking people’s ashes.” And I cried and cried so, that Mother couldn’t make me do it.
But now, I quietly took the pail in my hand and slipped out. I didn’t care if the whole world looked on me. I was going to bring that coal to Mother even if it killed me.
“You’ve got to do it! You’ve got to!” I kept talking to my‑ self as I dug my hand into the ashes. “I’m not a thief. I’m not a thief. It’s only dirt to them. And it’s fire to us. Let them laugh at me.” And I did not return home till my pail was full of coal.
From Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska, to be published on May 2, 2023 by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.