Every American has heard stories of Eastern European and Southern European immigration to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The stories are legion, the images unforgettable. Without a doubt, every American needs to visit Ellis Island at least once. There is so much to see, touch, feel, explore — and so many, many stories to hear as you listen to the headphones on your self-guided tour.

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Having immigrated with her family from Eastern Europe, Yezierska chronicled the hunger of her generation of newly arrived Jewish Americans around the turn of the century.

Her novels, short stories, and autobiographical writing vividly depict both the literal hunger of poverty and the metaphoric hunger for security, education, companionship, home, and meaning—in short, for the American dream.

Born in the Russian-Polish village Plinsk, near Warsaw, between and , the youngest of nine children, Yezierska arrived in the United States with her family in the early s. The year of her birth is uncertain not only because Yezierska did not recollect the exact date but also, according to her daughter, because she perpetually reinvented her history in interviews, frequently claiming to be younger to compensate for her relatively late start as a writer.

Her oldest brother Meyer preceded the family by several years. Immigration officers Americanized his name into Max Mayer, replacing his last name with a version of his first. She reclaimed the name Anzia Yezierska when she was about twenty-eight.

The family settled into a cramped tenement apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her father, Baruch Bernard , a talmudic scholar, engaged in full-time study of sacred books and was not gainfully employed. Her mother, Pearl, worked at menial jobs to support the family. Pressured to help support her struggling family in a cultural climate that did not legitimate the educational aspirations of girls, Yezierska attended elementary school for two years before working at a succession of domestic and factory jobs.

Four of her brothers studied pharmacy, another became a high school math teacher, another an army colonel. Young Anzia clashed frequently with her father, whose poverty, religious observance, and Eastern European ways she saw as barriers to full entry into American life. She pursued her ambition for education with a single-minded determination. According to her daughter, Yezierska promised patrons to become a domestic science teacher to help better her people, inventing a high school education for her application to Columbia University.

She then taught elementary school from to , with a brief leave of absence to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In , she began to write fiction. In , Yezierska married Jacob Gordon, a lawyer, but applied for an annulment the following day. She explained that while she valued his friendship, she was unprepared for the physical aspect of marriage. The following year, she married Arnold Levitas, a teacher and textbook writer, in a religious but not a civil ceremony.

Their daughter, Louise Levitas Henriksen , was born in In , Yezierska moved to San Francisco with Louise and worked as social worker, the last of several flights from her marital home. Because Yezierska could not support herself and her daughter, Louise was sent to live with Levitas in New York when she was five. The couple divorced in Years later, Louise Levitas described Yezierska as a vibrant, daring, and courageous person, but one whose extreme mood swings and egoism affected all her personal interactions.

Yezierska pays particular attention to the hardships of poverty for women saddled with child care and crowded conditions, and utterly financially dependent on husbands. Social workers repeatedly ask them intimate questions in public. The story depicts the loneliness and anomie of an elderly immigrant Jewish woman whose successful, Americanized children support her in luxury but are ashamed of her Old World ways.

Housed in an affluent neighborhood, the woman yearns for the intimacy and cultural vibrancy of the tenement world. In , Yezierska met John Dewey, who was to be the great romance of her life despite the difference in their ages—he was fifty-eight, she was in her mid-thirties.

Yezierska audited his seminar in social and political thought at Columbia University. According to her daughter, Yezierska used his poems and phrases from his letters uncredited in her writing. The breaking point in their relationship came when he made a sexual overture to her. Yezierska was catapulted briefly to fame and fortune when Hungry Hearts caught the attention of Samuel Goldwyn, who based a silent movie on it.

Although Goldwyn brought Yezierska to Hollywood as a screenwriter, she found her writing blocked amid wealth and removed from the culture she knew. Her autobiography Red Ribbon on a White Horse is considered both vibrant writing and factually unreliable. Initially lauded as an authentic voice of the tenements—Cinderella of the sweatshops—by the s, Yezierska had fallen into obscurity. Bread Givers was reissued in , followed by editions of many of her other works.

Most contemporary critics approach her work sociologically rather than aesthetically, drawn by her compelling depictions of cultural and geographic displacement, the American dream and the harsh reality of immigrant life, and the struggle to acculturate. In the main, she has been seen as aesthetically inferior to other writers of the Jewish immigrant and assimilation experience.

Many critics praise the raw power of her writing but see in it no real artistry. They cite the proliferation of stock characters—the overworked mother, the ineffectual father, the intellectual gentile or assimilated male savior, the cold WASP, the rootless Americanized Jew, the condescending social worker, the passionate and intelligent young Jewish immigrant woman.

Often, readers read the work as veiled autobiography, taking the voice of her protagonists as her own. But there has been a renewed appreciation for her oeuvre as a crafted literary work. Anzia Yezierska died of a stroke on November 21, , in Ontario, California. Reprint, ; Salome of the Tenements Anzia Yezierska ; Stinson, Peggy. More on Anzia Yezierska.


Anzia Yezierska

Her father was a scholar of the Torah and other sacred texts. Though her parents encouraged their sons to pursue higher education, Anzia and her sisters were taught to support men. She was briefly married, had one child in , attempted to raise her alone while working as a social worker in San Francisco, but then transferred custody rights back to her ex-husband. She pursued her writing career, which took several years before she secured a publisher. The illusive "American dream" sought by poor European immigrants, particularly the struggles of immigrant women searching for their identifies in America, became her own rags-to-riches story. The Fat of the Land was featured in Edward J. Her collection, Children of Loneliness , focused on the struggles of first generation Americans in search of the American Dream.


America and I

Her family emigrated to America around , following in the footsteps of her eldest brother, who had arrived in the States six years prior. They took up housing in the Lower East Side, Manhattan. She later reclaimed her original name, Anzia Yezierska, in her late twenties. Her father was a scholar of Torah and sacred texts. After 6 months, the marriage was annulled. Shortly after, she married Arnold Levitas in a religious ceremony to avoid legal complications. Arnold was the father of her only child, Louise, born May 29,


Anzia Yezierska: “America and I”

Despite this instant celebrity, her career was erratic: her work had fallen out of popular favor by the s, but she had a resurgence in , with publication of the autobiographical Red Ribbon on a White Horse. Her difficulties are multifold: not only must she learn to communicate with Americans, she must convince them that she has something worthy to say. Yezierska worked in a sweatshop and at other menial jobs during the day. In the evenings, she went to school to learn to read and write English. At some point, she came to the attention of a group of German-Jewish women who helped immigrant girls obtain an education. With their help, she won a scholarship to study domestic science at Columbia University. She earned her certificate to teach in but found that she disliked this career.


Donate For many of the Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the experience of life in a new country was often one of grinding poverty, social exclusion, and the desperate struggle to survive. America was a land of new beginnings, but those beginnings offered no guarantee of a satisfactory conclusion. Anzia Yezierska was one of the millions to leave Eastern Europe in search of a better life, departing Poland at the age of 15 along with her family and coming to New York in While her brothers were encouraged in their educations, Anzia was sent to work in a series of sweatshops.

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