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Anzia Yezierska : Celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month

By May 3, 2024No Comments

In honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, we recognize the economic, cultural, political, and social contributions of notable immigrants and refugees who’ve helped shape America’s vibrant tapestry. Today, we spotlight Russian-American novelist Anzia Yezierska.

Anzia Yezierska was born in the Russian-Polish village of Plinsk between 1880 and 1885, the youngest of nine siblings. At 13, she and her family immigrated to the U.S. The family settled in a densely packed tenement apartment complex on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and assumed the new surname of Mayer. At that time, Anzia changed her name to Harriet, but she would reclaim her original name when she turned 28.

Anzia’s family did not encourage girls’ educational aspirations, so they pressured her to help support the struggling family by working domestic and factory jobs. At the same time, several of her brothers pursued degrees. Anzia’s frequent schisms with her father led her to move into the Clara De Hirsch Home for Working Girls, where she enrolled in school. While supporting herself through menial jobs, Anzia attended Columbia University’s Teachers College on a scholarship before teaching elementary school for five years. At this time, she also attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She gained her U.S. citizenship in 1912.

In 1913, Anzia began to write fiction, focusing on Jewish immigrant life at the turn of the century. Her work gave a voice to her fellow Jewish immigrants and their struggle against poverty and for acceptance. She published her first short story in 1915, and just four years later, her story The Fat of the Land won the Edward J. O’Brien Award for best short story of the year. 

Hungry Hearts, Anzia’s collection of short stories published in 1920, caught the attention of Hollywood and served as the basis for a Goldwyn Pictures silent movie in 1922. Paramount Pictures produced a second silent movie based on her novel, Salome of the Tenements. Movie producer Samuel Goldwyn soon hired Anzia as a screenwriter. Her sudden rise to fame and fortune in California earned her the nickname “Sweatshop Cinderella.”

However, with increasing wealth and status, Anzia became uncomfortable while struggling to write with the same zeal that led to her success. She soon returned to her economic struggles in New York to continue writing about the perils of impoverished immigrant women fighting to establish their own identities. 

In the 1950s and 1960s, Anzia Yezierska focused her writing on the plight of Puerto Rican Immigrants acclimating in New York before focusing on the aging process in the last decade of her life.

Anzia Yezierska died of a stroke in 1970.