Ten tales by a Jewish-American author of the early twentieth century offer timeless depictions of immigrants' struggles and dreams. Set in New York City's teeming Lower East Side, this lost masterpiece provides rich psychological portraits of mothers, daughters, and sisters as they attempt to find places in the New World.
During her early childhood, Anzia Yezierska (c. 1880–1970) emigrated from Poland to New York City, where she worked in sweatshops by day and studied English at night. She drew upon her own experiences to write these stories as well as novels and screenplays focusing on issues of acculturation and assimilation. Hungry Hearts, which originally appeared in 1920, inspired a popular film and holds the historic distinction of being the first publication by a Jewish-American woman writer.
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Stories of the Jewish-American Immigrant Experience
By Anzia Yezierska
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
"My heart chokes in me like in a prison! I'm dying for a little love and I got nobody—nobody!" wailed Shenah Pessah, as she looked out of the dismal basement window.
It was a bright Sunday afternoon in May, and into the gray, cheerless, janitor's basement a timid ray of sunlight announced the dawn of spring.
"Oi weh! Light!" breathed Shenah Pessah, excitedly, throwing open the sash. "A little light in the room for the first time!" And she stretched out her hands hungrily for the warming bit of sun.
The happy laughter of the shopgirls standing on the stoop with their beaux and the sight of the young mothers with their husbands and babies fanned anew the consuming fire in her breast.
"I'm not jealous!" she gasped, chokingly. "My heart hurts too deep to want to tear from them their luck to happiness. But why should they live and enjoy life and why must I only look on how they are happy?"
She clutched at her throat like one stifled for want of air. "What is the matter with you? Are you going out of your head? For what is your crying? Who will listen to you? Who gives a care what's going to become from you?"
Crushed by her loneliness, she sank into a chair. For a long time she sat motionless, finding drear fascination in the mocking faces traced in the patches of the torn plaster. Gradually, she became aware of a tingling warmth playing upon her cheeks. And with a revived breath, she drank in the miracle of the sunlit wall.
"Ach!" she sighed. "Once a year the sun comes to light up even this dark cellar, so why shouldn't the High One send on me too a little brightness?"
This new wave of hope swept aside the fact that she was the "greenhorn" janitress, that she was twenty-two and dowryless, and, according to the traditions of her people, condemned to be shelved aside as an unmated thing—a creature of pity and ridicule.
"I can't help it how old I am or how poor I am!" she burst out to the deaf and dumb air. "I want a little life! I want a little joy!"
The bell rang sharply, and as she turned to answer the call, she saw a young man at the doorway—a framed picture of her innermost dreams.
The stranger spoke.
Shenah Pessah did not hear the words, she heard only the music of his voice. She gazed fascinated at his clothes—the loose Scotch tweeds, the pongee shirt, a bit open at the neck, but she did not see him or the things he wore. She only felt an irresistible presence seize her soul. It was as though the god of her innermost longings had suddenly taken shape in human form and lifted her in mid-air.
"Does the janitor live here?" the stranger repeated.
Shenah Pessah nodded.
"Can you show me the room to let?"
"Yes, right away, but wait only a minute," stammered Shenah Pessah, fumbling for the key on the shelf.
"Don't fly into the air!" She tried to reason with her wild, throbbing heart, as she walked upstairs with him. In an effort to down the chaos of emotion that shook her she began to talk nervously: "Mrs. Stein who rents out the room ain't going to be back till the evening, but I can tell you the price and anything you want to know. She's a grand cook and you can eat by her your breakfast and dinner—" She did not have the slightest notion of what she was saying, but talked on in a breathless stream lest he should hear the loud beating of her heart.
"Could I have a drop-light put in here?" the man asked, as he looked about the room.
Shenah Pessah stole a quick, shy glance at him. "Are you maybe a teacher or a writing man?"
"Yes, sometimes I teach," he said, studying her, drawn by the struggling soul of her that cried aloud to him out of her eyes.
"I could tell right away that you must be some kind of a somebody," she said, looking up with wistful worship in her eyes. "Ach, how grand it must be to live only for learning and thinking."
"Is this your home?"
"I never had a home since I was eight years old. I was living by strangers even in Russia."
"Russia?" he repeated with quickened attention. So he was in their midst, the people he had come to study. The girl with her hungry eyes and intense eagerness now held a new interest for him.
John Barnes, the youngest instructor of sociology in his university, congratulated himself at his good fortune in encountering such a splendid type for his research. He was preparing his thesis on the "Educational Problems of the Russian Jews," and in order to get into closer touch with his subject, he had determined to live on the East Side during his spring and summer vacation.
He went on questioning her, unconsciously using all the compelling power that made people open their hearts to him. "And how long have you been here?"
"Two years already."
"You seem to be fond of study. I suppose you go to night-school?"
"I never yet stepped into a night-school since I came to America. From where could I get the time? My uncle is such an old man he can't do much and he got already used to leave the whole house on me."
"You stay with your uncle, then?"
"Yes, my uncle sent for me the ticket for America when my aunt was yet living. She got herself sick. And what could an old man like him do with only two hands?"
"Was that sufficient reason for you to leave your homeland?"
"What did I have out there in Savel that I should be afraid to lose? The cows that I used to milk had it better than me. They got at least enough to eat and me slaving from morning till night went around hungry."
"You poor child!" broke from the heart of the man, the scientific inquisition of the sociologist momentarily swept away by his human sympathy.
Who had ever said "poor child" to her—and in such a voice? Tears gathered in Shenah Pessah's eyes. For the first time she mustered the courage to look straight at him. The man's face, his voice, his bearing,
so different from any one she had ever known, and yet what was there about him that made her so strangely at ease with him? She went on talking, led irresistibly by the friendly glow in his eyes.
"I got yet a lot of luck. I learned myself English from a Jewish English reader, and one of the boarders left me a grand book. When I only begin to read, I forget I'm on this world. It lifts me on wings with high thoughts." Her whole face and figure lit up with animation as she poured herself out to him.
"So even in the midst of these sordid surroundings were 'wings' and 'high thoughts,'" he mused. Again the gleam of the visionary—the eternal desire to reach out and up, which was the predominant racial trait of the Russian immigrant.
"What is the name of your book?" he continued, taking advantage of this providential encounter.
"The book is 'Dreams,' by Olive Schreiner."
"H—m," he reflected. "So these are the 'wings' and 'high thoughts.' No wonder the blushes—the tremulousness. What an opportunity for a psychological test-case, and at the same time I could help her by pointing the way out of her nebulous emotionalism and place her feet firmly on earth." He made a quick, mental note of certain books that he would place in her hands and wondered how she would respond to them.
"Do you belong to a library?"
"Library? How? Where?"
Her lack of contact with Americanizing agencies appalled him.
"I'll have to introduce you to the library when I come to live here," he said.
"Ci-i! You really like it, the room?" Shenah Pessah clapped her hands in a burst of uncontrollable delight.
"I like the room very much, and I shall be glad to take it if you can get it ready for me by next week."
Shenah Pessah looked up at the man. "Do you mean it? You really want to come and live here, in this place? The sky is falling to the earth!"
"Live here?" Most decidedly he would live here. He became suddenly enthusiastic. But it was the enthusiasm of the scientist for the specimen of his experimentation—of the sculptor for the clay that would take form under his touch.
"I'm coming here to live—" He was surprised at the eager note in his voice, the sudden leaven of joy that surged through his veins. "And I'm going to teach you to read sensible books, the kinds that will help you more than your dream book."
Shenah Pessah drank in his words with a joy that struck back as fear lest this man—the visible sign of her answered prayer—would any moment be snatched up and disappear in the heavens where he belonged. With a quick leap toward him she seized his hand in both her own. "Oi, mister! Would you like to learn me English lessons too? I'll wash for you your shirts for it. If you would even only talk to me, it would be more to me than all the books in the world."
He instinctively recoiled at this outburst of demonstrativeness. His eyes narrowed and his answer was deliberate. "Yes, you ought to learn English," he said, resuming his professional tone, but the girl was too overwrought to notice the change in his manner.
"There it is," he thought to himself on his way out. "The whole gamut of the Russian Jew—the pendulum swinging from abject servility to boldest aggressiveness."
Shenah Pessah remained standing and smiling to herself after Mr. Barnes left. She did not remember a thing she had said. She only felt herself whirling in space, millions of miles beyond the earth. The god of dreams had arrived and nothing on earth could any longer hold her down.
Then she hurried back to the basement and took up the broken piece of mirror that stood on the shelf over the sink and gazed at her face trying to see herself through his eyes. "Was it only pity that made him stop to talk to me? Or can it be that he saw what's inside me?"
Her eyes looked inward as she continued to talk to herself in the mirror.
"God from the world!" she prayed. "I'm nothing and nobody now, but ach! How beautiful I would become if only the light from his eyes would fall on me!"
Covering her flushed face with her hands as if to push back the tumult of desire that surged within her, she leaned against the wall. "Who are you to want such a man?" she sobbed.
"But no one is too low to love God, the Highest One. There is no high in love and there is no low in love. Then why am I too low to love him?"
"Shenah Pessah!" called her uncle angrily. "What are you standing there like a yok, dreaming in the air? Don't you hear the tenants knocking on the pipes? They are hollering for the hot water. You let the fire go out."
At the sound of her uncle's voice all her "high thoughts" fled. The mere reminder of the furnace with its ashes and cinders smothered her buoyant spirits and again she was weighed down by the strangling yoke of her hateful, daily round.
It was evening when she got through with her work. To her surprise she did not feel any of the old weariness. It was as if her feet danced under her. Then from the open doorway of their kitchen she overheard Mrs. Melker, the matchmaker, talking to her uncle.
"Motkeh, the fish-peddler, is looking for a wife to cook him his eating and take care on his children," she was saying in her shrill, grating voice. "So I thought to myself this is a golden chance for Shenah Pessah to grab. You know a girl in her years and without money, a single man would n't give a look on her."
Shenah Pessah shuddered. She wanted to run away from the branding torture of their low talk, but an unreasoning curiosity drew her to listen.
"Living is so high," went on Mrs. Melker, "that single men don't want to marry themselves even to young girls, except if they can get themselves into a family with money to start them up in business. It is Shenah Pessah's luck yet that Motkeh likes good eating and he can't stand it any more the meals in a restaurant. He heard from people what a good cook and housekeeper Shenah Pessah is, so he sent me around to tell you he would take her as she stands without a cent."
Mrs. Melker dramatically beat her breast. "I swear I should n't live to go away from here alive, I should n't live to see my own children married if I'm talking this match for the few dollars that Motkeh will pay me for it, but because I want to do something good for a poor orphan. I'm a mother, and it weeps in me my heart to see a girl in her years and not married."
"And who'll cook for me my eating, if I'll let her go?" broke out her uncle angrily. "And who'll do me my work? Did n't I spend out fifty dollars to send for her the ticket to America? Ought n't I have a little use from her for so many dollars I laid out on her?"
"Think on God!" remonstrated Mrs. Melker. "The girl is an orphan and time is pushing itself on her. Do you want her to sit till her braids grow gray, before you'll let her get herself a man? It stands in the Talmud that a man should take the last bite away from his mouth to help an orphan get married. You'd beg yourself out a place in heaven in the next world—"
"In America a person can't live on hopes for the next world. In America everybody got to look out for himself. I'd have to give up the janitor's work to let her go, and then where would I be?"
"You lived already your life. Give her also a chance to lift up her head in the world. Could n't you get yourself in an old man's home?"
"These times you got to have money even in an old man's home. You know how they say, if you oil the wheels you can ride. With dry hands you can't get nothing in America."
"So you got no pity on an orphan and your own relation? All her young years she choked herself in darkness and now comes already a little light for her, a man that can make a good living wants her—"
"And who'll have pity on me if I'll let her out from my hands? Who is this Motkeh, anyway? Is he good off? Would I also have a place where to lay my old head? Where stands he out with his pushcart?"
"On Essex Street near Delancey."
"Oi-i! You mean Motkeh Pelz? Why, I know him yet from years ago. They say his wife died him from hunger. She had to chew the earth before she could beg herself out a cent from him. By me Shenah Pessah has at least enough to eat and shoes on her feet. I ask you only is it worth already to grab a man if you got to die from hunger for it?"
Shenah Pessah could listen no longer.
"Don't you worry yourself for me," she commanded, charging into the room. "Don't take pity on my years. I'm living in America, not in Russia. I'm not hanging on anybody's neck to support me. In America, if a girl earns her living, she can be fifty years old and without a man, and nobody pities her."
Seizing her shawl, she ran out into the street. She did not know where her feet carried her. She had only one desire—to get away. A fierce rebellion against everything and everybody raged within her and goaded her on until she felt herself choked with hate.
All at once she visioned a face and heard a voice. The blacker, the more stifling the ugliness of her prison, the more luminous became the light of the miraculous stranger who had stopped for a moment to talk to her. It was as though inside a pit of darkness the heavens opened and hidden hopes began to sing.
Her uncle was asleep when she returned. In the dim gaslight she looked at his yellow, care-crushed face with new compassion in her heart. "Poor old man!" she thought, as she turned to her room. "Nothing beautiful never happened to him. What did he have in life outside the worry for bread and rent? Who knows, maybe if such a god of men would have shined on him—" She fell asleep and she awoke with visions opening upon visions of new, gleaming worlds of joy and hope. She leaped out of bed singing a song she had not heard since she was a little child in her mother's home.
Several times during the day, she found herself at the broken mirror, arranging and rearranging her dark mass of unkempt hair with fumbling fingers. She was all a-tremble with breathless excitement to imitate the fluffy style of the much-courted landlady's daughter.
For the first time she realized how shabby and impossible her clothes were. "Oi weh!" she wrung her hands. "I'd give away everything in the world only to have something pretty to wear for him. My whole life hangs on how I'll look in his eyes. I got to have a hat and a new dress. I can't no more wear my 'greenhorn' shawl going out with an American.
"But from where can I get the money for new clothes? Oi weh! How bitter it is not to have the dollar! Woe is me! No mother, no friend, nobody to help me lift myself out of my greenhorn rags."
"Why not pawn the feather bed your mother left you?" She jumped at the thought.
"What? Have you no heart? No feelings? Pawn the only one thing left from your dead mother?
"Why not? Nothing is too dear for him. If your mother could stand up from her grave, she'd cut herself in pieces, she'd tear the sun and stars out from the sky to make you beautiful for him."
Late one evening Zaretsky sat in his pawnshop, absorbed in counting the money of his day's sales, when Shenah Pessah, with a shawl over her head and a huge bundle over her shoulder, edged her way hesitantly into the store. Laying her sacrifice down on the counter, she stood dumbly and nervously fingered the fringes of her shawl.
The pawnbroker lifted his miserly face from the cash-box and shot a quick glance at the girl's trembling figure.
"Nu?" said Zaretsky, in his cracked voice, cutting the twine from the bundle and unfolding a feather bed. His appraising hand felt that it was of the finest down. "How much ask you for it?"
Excerpted from Hungry Hearts by Anzia Yezierska. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Lost "Beautifulness",
The Free Vacation House,
Where Lovers Dream,
Soap and Water,
"The Fat of the Land",
My Own People,
How I Found America,