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Anzia Yezierska: The Tenement House ‘Cinderella’

avatar by Harold Brackman

Opinion

A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

Applied to American Jews, the “white privilege” concept oversimplifies and misstates a complicated history.

Anzia Yezierska — once romanticized by Hollywood publicists as America’s “Cinderella of the Tenements” — is a case study.

Later fudging the facts about her place and date of birth, Yezierska came to New York from Russian Poland with her large, impoverished family, before 1900. An immigration inspector stamped her family’s papers with the surname “Mayer.” She called herself “Hattie Mayer,” until she was old enough to change it back to “Anna Yezierska.”

She then attended the Educational Alliance to learn how to write English, and moved to a home for working girls. She was employed as a maid cleaning houses, in a Delancey Street sweatshop, and on a factory floor — where, after hours, she wrote short stories.

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She received only rudimentary public schooling. Her father, a Talmudic scholar who studied Torah at home full-time, ordered his daughters to support him while his sons prepared for college. The war of wills between father and daughter never ended.

Except for their supposed “white” skin, Yezierska’s family suffered many of the woes experienced by African-American families making the transition from the South to the North. In fact, she saw the similarities when she befriended then-unknown African-American novelist Richard Wright, who toiled beside her working for the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s.

Marrying twice, Yezierska taught “domestic science” in public schools. She moved to San Francisco to become a social worker for Hebrew Charities. Then she surrendered custody of her daughter, and moved back to New York, where she gravitated to Greenwich Village and continued writing through bouts of nervous exhaustion.

In 1920, in return for film rights to some of her collected stories, Samuel Goldwyn gave Yezierska a $10,000 signing bonus plus a railway ticket from Hester Street poverty to Beverly Hills affluence. Meeting Tinseltown’s glitterati, she was too shocked by their extravagant lifestyles to write anything more for the movies. Disgust with Goldwyn’s PR machine caused her to reconnect with her New York City roots.

Her autobiography, “Red Ribbon on a White Horse” (1950), recounts flirtations with Christian Science and Eastern mysticism, and her romance with philosopher John Dewey, who permitted Yezierska to audit his Columbia University seminars, and arranged for her to be published in The New Republic. Each expected the other to bridge the divide between “cold” Anglo-Saxon and “passionate” Jew, but neither succeeded. They were separated by class as well as culture. Dewey tried writing her poetry, but to no avail.

If her writings seem melodramatic, her life was like that — although she embellished the facts. Yezierska intentionally ended her novels with unconvincing “happy endings.” She almost never evoked fond memories of shtetl life. Enduring a troubled relationship with her family, she wrote plots about unhappy love affairs with upper-class white Protestants, modeled on the diffident Dewey.

Yezierska gradually fell into obscurity until feminist critics revived interest in her works in the 1960s. She still matters today, because — beneath her prose’s romantic veneer — she revealed the toll taken on Jewish immigrant women by patriarchal religion, poverty, and family breakup.

If Yezierska dreamed of becoming “the Sweatshop Cinderella,” her prince charming never materialized.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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