hungry hearts

by anzya

Before your two lovely bloggers began this little blog, we had been thinking about compiling a booklet with people’s fave articles or stories by jewish writers. This blog kinda overshadowed that idea, but it was interesting to have a think about jewish writers, especially the lesser-known ones, who have had a profound impact on me.

The story I was planning to include in the booklet is one from “Hungry Hearts” by Anzia Yerzieska (my namesake)… I picked up a copy of her short stories while browsing through books in a new york used bookstore last year. She wrote her stories about a hundred years ago, but when I picked up “Hungry Hearts” it felt as though I had discovered something fresh and exciting, Yezierska has such a unique voice.

The main character of the first story, “Wings” is twenty-two year old Shenah Pessah; already predestined for misery for being penniless, an immigrant, an orphan, and a woman. She is preyed upon for her labour by a bitter uncle, and observed as an object of study by a paternalistic Columbia University scholar.

But what is especially compelling about Shenah Pessah is her vivid internal world of dreams and desires. She yearns for something that she confuses with the American dream, but which really seems like so much more. Yezierska’s writing style is somewhat sentimental, but i also found it rather feminist (though i know that sounds simplistic, but hear me out…) in the way that she gives voice to woman’s desires, passions and naivete, and treats these with understanding rather than censure.

But while “Wings” is a personal story about one woman’s inner world, I also found it mesmerising the way that it manages to evoke the lost world of desperate Jewish immigrants in New York in the 1920s.

I became even more interested in Yezierska when I read some of her history. Yezierska was born in the 1880s in a small shtetl outside of Warsaw, and immigrated with her family to America around 1890, living in the Lower East Side, Manhattan. My grandmother was born in a shtetl in the same area outside Warsaw, and had a sister who moved to New York when my grandmother was a baby, probably about 1915. Reading Yezierska makes me think of how her life would have been like for her. It helps me picture that history that not even my grandmother knows how to tell.

A bit of gossip about Yezierska is that she she had a romantic, and intellectual, relationship with the philosopher John Dewey, who wrote this about her: “She walked into my office one day and brought the Old World with her. She had not said three words before I saw farther into the heart of Russia and Poland than I had ever been able to by reading many heavy books. She was Poland…. I kiss your hand, Anzia Yezyierska, for you are more than a Queen, you are a Thoroughbred.” This is pretty interesting to compare with the somewhat cynical portrayal of the Columbia scholar John Barnes in “Wings”.

A quote might be good here, just to give you a bit of an idea of what I loved about Yezierska’s writing….

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.

hungry hearts from the 1920 silent film

Another interesting thing to note is that this story was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn and made into a (silent) film, Hungry Hearts in 1920 (see pic above). Goldwyn offered Yezierska a $100,000 contract to write screenplays for him, and she was apparently dubbed by publicists as “the sweatshop Cinderella”: a living example of the American Dream. But, she found herself, understandably, uncomfortable with this comparison, and with making so much money out of her writing, gleaned from the stories of the still-destitute immigrant community that she came from. She returned to New York to continue writing instead, and wrote novels and stories for the rest of her life.

Many of Yezierska’s short stories, including “Hungry Hearts” are available online. This website which I stumbled upon, “A Celebration of Women Writers”, is actually a pretty cool resource. They find texts by women writers that are out of print or hard to find, and put them up as a free resource. If you “browse by ethnicity” (which felt like strange wording to me, but anyway…) you can find a quite staggering list of Jewish women writers, most of whom I’ve never heard of, whose works you can access online.

If you’ve managed to keep reading this far down… I thought  – in the spirit of the collection of readings from Jewish writers I mentioned earlier – that it might be a good suggestion if our visitors posted in the comments section down below links, titles or references of writings by Jewish authors that have had an impact on you in some way. Don’t know about you, but I always love to get new reading ideas…