This autobiographical novel of a young woman trying to escape life as a poor immigrant on NY lower East Side was originally published in 1925 and reissued in 1950. Sarah Smolinsky is one of four daughters of a family who immigrates from a shtetl in Poland to America, where they find a life of grinding poverty. Any extra money they bring in from their jobs is given away by their father to various charities he supports. He doesn’t work, but instead lives off their earnings and spends his time studying and teaching Torah. He believes women exist to support men and without men, women have no reason to exist.
Sarah sees her three sisters sold into marriage, but vows to fight this fate for herself. Determined to get an education, she earns the nickname ‘blood-and-iron’ from her father, who rails against her ‘unwomanly’ attitude. Fed by a fierce desire to learn, she works her way up to a respectable position as a teacher, getting a college education by her own efforts.
By the end, Sarah realizes that there is more of her father’s strength and determination than she had first thought, and she is reconciled with him.
Anzia’s voice is similar to the voice of many first-generation immigrants who try to break free of the old world but who have difficulty finding their place in the New. In the introduction, Alice Kesslelr-Harris writes of Anzia ‘Everyone admired her and no one could bear to be with her for very long.’ The same could be said for her heroine.