Female Oppression in the Jewish Community

Female Oppression in the Jewish Community

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Women's oppression in the Jewish society works strongly in the system of marriage, but, ironically, the oppression is acquiesced in by women themselves. For example, the father's kind look is enough to make the mother happy: "His kind look was like the sun shining on her" (11). Therefore, even though she keeps complaining about his not taking care of his family, Sara's mother can even say to the father, "I'm only a sinful woman . . . I'm willing to give up all my earthly needs for the wine of Heaven with you" (12).
However, although Reb Smolinsky embodies the heritage of orthodox Jewish patriarchy against which Sara must struggle, the father himself seems to suffer a transformation, influenced by the money-seeking American society, from an eccentric whose piety is outmoded and economically disastrous to a shrewd neighborhood leader whose piety is a vehicle for mobilizing family and community. He begins to sell his services as a rabbi not through devout religious practice but through the abstraction of his faith into a symbol that generates success (Ferraro 554-55). His transformation is suggested in the chapter title, such as "Father Becomes a Businessman in America." But even though he partly accepts the American way of life, it does not necessarily mean that he gives up his tyranny in his family. On the contrary, his tyranny seems to become stronger when he tries to frustrate his daughters' love for the sake of making more money. Not any sort of ‘bread giver,' he interferes with each case of love-affair of his daughters to earn more money by selling off each of his daughters to one unsuitable husband after another, and literally sells off Bessie to a fish peddler for five hundred dollars. When he urges his daughters to obey his will, he ceaselessly emphasizes woman's inferior status in the world: "What's a woman without a man? Less than nothing---a blotted-out existence. No life on earth and no hope of Heaven" (205).
Meanwhile, on the part of the daughters, marriage is the only recourse to escape from home, the bedrock of oppressive patriarchy. It is evident in their explanation of the real reason for their marriage. For example, Fania says that ". . . even if Abe Schmukler was a rag-picker, a bootblack, I'd rush into his arms, only to get away from our house . . . . If I seem so excited about Los Angeles, it's only because it's a dream city at the other end of the world, so many thousands of miles away from home" (80), while Mashah says that "I didn't care about any man any more.

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I only wanted to run away from home" (83). Not surprisingly, those marriages turn out to be a failure, since the marriages were a choice not to confront the realities but to escape from them.
By contrast, Sara believes that by becoming a teacher, and economically independent, she can gain a key to unlocking the oppressive status she is given as a Jewish woman. In the final intense encounter with her father, Sara declares: "My will is as strong as yours. I'm going to live my own life. Nobody can stop me. I'm not from the old country. I'm American" (138). Despite all the obstacles: the extreme poverty, her mother's appeal to come back, Fania's urge to marry, Sara goes on with her journey upwards. How firm she is in her determination is explicitly suggested in her refusal of Max. She is almost caught with Max, but at the last minute is disillusioned by his completely money-oriented way of life. Max declares: "it's money that makes the wheels go round. With my money I can have college graduates working for me, for my agents, my bookkeepers, my lawyers. I can hire them and fire them . . ." (199). At this, Sara suddenly comes to realize that to Max "a wife would only be another piece of property" (199). When Father blames her for not having accepted Max's proposal, Sara again comes to face with patriarchal tyranny, realizing that to her father as well, she was "nothing but his last unmarried daughter to be bought and sold" (205). After this encounter, she refuses to subject herself to the prison of marriage, and decides to stick to her own belief that she needs an independent life of her own. Sara refuses to suffer a "boss of a husband to crush the spirit in me[her]" (177).
After all the struggles, finally she becomes a teacher, a status whereby she can be true both to her culture and the American ideal of independence. Her dream seems to be realized, but it is so merely on the surface, which is indicated by the fact that this fairy tale text has strong elements of incongruity inscribed in it. For instance, when she first goes to college, she thinks that she has to change herself "inside and out to be one of them" (214). However, even though she reaches the position she has been craving, Sara still feels herself an outsider. She realizes that she can never be one of them: "I was nothing and nobody. It was worse than being ignored. Worse than being an outcast. I simply didn't belong. I had no existence in their young eyes" (219). The outcome is that, no matter what she has given up by isolating herself from the Jewish cultural background for six years, she still remains an alien to the dominant American culture. She is apparently integrated into the dominant culture she has longed to penetrate, but the cultural distance is not made narrow, and the gap is never bridged over. Therefore, the sense of loss and lament which pervades the novel cannot be easily mitigated by Sara's triumphs at the end. After all, Sara returns to the tradition from which she starts, realizing that her father "alone remained unchanged--as tragically isolate as the rocks" (296). She feels the still strong influence of the father and the tradition she belongs to: "I felt the shadow still there, over me. It wasn't just my father, but the generations who made my father whose weight was still upon me" (297).
What is questionable about this ending is that the negative portrayal of the father throughout the book challenges the credibility of Sara's final attitudes of kindness toward or appreciation of her father and what he represents. It is puzzling because Sara seems to succumb after all her struggles. However, it should be noted that even though the father is described as being the arch enemy of Sara throughout the book, it is also significant that they are most like each other, in that they have the qualities of iron will. Whenever the father criticizes Sara, he calls her "Blunt-und-Eisen" (20), which well characterizes her strong will and independence in contrast with the other sisters who are generally obedient to the father's will. Fania in fact points out Sara's strong will and her resemblance to the father: "Let's leave her[Sara] to her mad education. She's worse than Father with his Holy Torah" (178). Therefore, it is more or less natural that Sara herself comes to realize how much she has respected the commitment and solidity of her father in spite of his terribly tyrannical way of living. At the ending, Sara finally seems to yield to her father like her mother and sisters, but, in contrast to them, Sara does so out of strength, not weakness. Accordingly, the ending may be viewed as "a moral triumph" (Girgus 115) of Sara's will and values. Furthermore, the ending may amount to that of a real resolution and of an achievement of a myth, combining the Jewish tradition and the American.
However, it is not plausible enough that, after having strived for so long to achieve independence, Sara readily renounces it only to accept a tyranny of drudgery in the family, against which she has persistently resisted. The most stirring element is the abrupt emergence of an idealistic character, Hugo. He seems not so much a character as a device to introduce the reconciliation between Sara and her father, between the now independent woman who represents the American values and the Jewish rabbi who sticks to the traditional dogmas. Why does Yezierska create a character who seems to be only needed for the heroine of the myth to escape to a safe bourgeois world? It is hard to eliminate the suspicion that the ending is forced, and that of a romanticized myth. It cannot be denied that Yezierska's desire for a happy ending fatally interferes with her social awareness of the complexities of being a Jewish woman immigrant in America in the 1920s.
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