The novel is set in the 1910s and early 1920s in New York City. By the 1920s, 2.2 million Eastern European Jews had immigrated to New York City. They encountered a culture clash between the Americanized Jews (largely from cities in Germany), who had become established by the end of the 19th century, and the Eastern European Jews, from more rural and conservative Orthodox Jewish communities. They also had to deal with the unfamiliar majority culture. During this period, new immigrants dealt with poverty, unsafe working conditions, sweatshops and the beginning of the women's movement. For Jewish Americans, the 1910s and early 1920s were a time of the beginning of the Jewish women's movement, economic gains and entry into the middle class, and a shift among many toward secular Judaism. This last aspect was also influenced by the growth of Zionism in Europe and the US.
The story takes place in three distinct settings: the tenements on New York's Lower East Side, the town of Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Sara's college (not named but outside the immigrant setting). Many immigrants settled with or near family and neighbors in the tenements of New York's Lower East Side, replicating their European communities. The top floor of these walk-up buildings represented those of the lowest status, because of all the stairs to climb.
After the move to Elizabeth, New Jersey, the family interacts with a wider variety of people, becoming more exposed to general American culture as they interact with customers. Sara and her mother miss the close support of the community of women from the New York City tenements. Sara becomes entirely isolated from her original culture after she leaves for college.