Family Ties – Jewish Obligation and Irish Satisfaction

Family has a defining impact on an individual. Growing up is a mixture of good and bad experiences that prepares a person for adulthood. Some families grow to feel like a burden on the grown children, while for others the bonds grow only stronger with age. While watching the silent film “Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley,” I was astonished at the differences between the title character Amarilly and Sara Smolinsky, the main character of the book Break Givers by Anzia Yezierska, and how they grew up to view their families. Both women are young, strong, and independent, and both work hard to support themselves and their families. Yet they have very different views of what family means.

Sara longs to escape the confines of her childhood home on Hester Street, and the oppressiveness and tyranny imposed on the entire family by her father, a very devout Jew. Reb Smolinsky firmly believes that a man should devote his life to the study of the Torah, while his wife and daughters should slave away at jobs and then hand over every cent of their earnings to him. Sara, unable to live with a man who ceaselessly dolls out criticism, yet can take no responsibility when his own choices and actions go awry, runs away, breaking a very stern Jewish tradition. When Sara does finally manage to cut ties to Hester Street, she stays away for several years, returning for only a brief stint as a caretaker for her dying mother, before leaving again. One day, however, she literally collides with her old life in the form of her worn-down father, peddling chewing gum, in an attempt to appease his new wife’s greed. Once again, Sara feels the familiar burden of having to support her father, but instead of running away from the idea, she reluctantly accepts it as her familial obligation, which sits like a weight on her shoulders; a weight she knows she must endure for the remainder of her father’s life. There is no joy in this acceptance, nor any satisfaction. For Sara, it is an inescapable duty that merely comes with being a part of a family.

Hester Street ca 1900

Amarilly is a vivacious young Irish woman, living with her mother and five younger brothers on Clothes-Line Alley. She works as a scrub woman in a theater, and later as a cigarette girl in a bar, as well as helping her mother as a washer woman. Amarilly’s contentedness about her living situation is fairly evident throughout the film, though when a rich man falls into her life and sweeps her off her feet and into his aunt’s upscale home, she doesn’t complain. The aunt tries to introduce Amarilly into higher society, as an experiment to see how she would fit in. They change her dress, her hair, and her lifestyle, but the scheme ultimately fails. As a ploy to try to show Amarilly and her rich suitor the ridiculousness of Amarilly’s family, the aunt invites Amarilly’s mother to tea with high society. Although Amarilly’s mother dresses up and the boys who have accompanied her are all well behaved, it is painfully obvious to everyone how much they do not fit in. Despite the rich man willing to risk the derision of his peers and his place in society to marry her, Amarilly loves her life in Clothes-Line Alley, and being with her family is too attractive of an idea to leave for good. She returns to her home and mother and brothers and tells the rich man that she has learned that you can’t mix ice cream and pickles. And so the man returns to his ‘ice cream’ society and Amarilly remains in her ‘pickle’ culture, her bond with her family only stronger.

What is it about these two women that can make one run happily home to Clothes-Line Alley with pride in her family and circumstances while the other feels her family is a burden and desperately tries to escape her life on Hester Street? One of the most obvious differences is lack of the oppressive patriarchal figure in Amarilly’s story that is so pervasive in Sara’s. Both girls have a strong emotional connection to their mothers, but Sara’s happiness with her mother is obscured by her father’s nearly omnipresent nagging and critiquing. Perhaps if Sara could have grown up without the constant reminder that she was only a woman and was nothing without a man, she could have developed some amount of pride in her circumstances while still at home, as Amarilly did, rather than fueling her desire to escape as quickly as possible. But is that really enough to create such a drastic difference in familial feelings? Had Amarilly a father like Sara’s, would her vivacity have transcended that? If Sara had no father to stand in her way and tell her she was nothing, would she have felt the obligations to provide for her family lessened? Jewish and Irish cultures stereotypes a strong bond with family, yet one chooses to let the weight of her situation oppress her, and the other chooses embrace it. Perhaps the reason is as simple as a stereotype. The Irish are seen as a much more relaxed while the Jews are much more restrictive. Would the book and film respectively had been as well received if the stereotypes had not help up? Stereotypes serve to create a situation which the audience is comfortable with. When it all comes to a conclusion, the audience is supposed to be satisfied by this show of strength and acceptance of family ties. Obligations fulfilled. Families intact. Contented endings. What more could we ask for?

Immigrant-children-ellis-island

All images taken from Google.

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