An entire chapter of Eric Liu’s memoir, The Accidental Asian, is founded on the supposition that Jews today serve as a metaphor for assimilation into American culture. According to Liu, this is due to the ease with which Jews have been able to assimilate. However, the progress that Jews have made in embracing and affecting America has been gradual rather than instantaneous, as evidenced by the character Sara Smolensky in Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers. Sara is not the symbol of an assimilated Jew, but instead represents a period of transition between complete assimilation into American identity and complete dissimilation from her Jewish and Polish heritage, neither of which she can fully accomplish. Her identity was both “made” and “unmade” by her interaction with America, and she is left struggling for a new self that can interweave her ancestral past and her American present.
Perhaps the best example of Sara’s deviation from her Jewish heritage and her attempt to assimilate was her refusal to allow the undertaker to tear her suit during her mother’s funeral service. The clothing that she wears is a symbol to her of wealth and of being an American. For Sara the ripping of her clothing had become an “empty symbol,” a cultural construction with only symbolic meaning that could help to identify her ethnicity, and does not serve any logical purpose. After being distanced from her family and immersed in American culture for so long, she no longer understands the purpose of the action, and posits verily that “Tearing [her only suit] wouldn’t bring Mother back to life again” (Yezierska 255). This represents a clear distinction between volunta...
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...rself in between the two, and in doing so partially “unmakes” the ethnic identity passed on to her from her ancestors. The question of whether she is more assimilated into American culture or is more dissimilated from the culture of her ancestors is arbitrary and ambiguous. She is simultaneously both and neither; she is a new person who enjoys the American way of life but will always feel burdened by the “weight” of her ancestors “upon [her]” (297).
Liu, Eric. “New Jews.” The Accidental Asian. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. 145-74.
Sollors, Werner. Forward. “Theories of American Ethnicity.” American Quarterly. 33.3 (1981): 257-83.
Takaki, Ronald. “Between Two Endless Days.” A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1993. 277-310.
Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers. New York: Persea Books, 2003.
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