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Written by Micola Magdalena, Szabina Földházi
Reb Smolinsky is the head of the Smolinsky family. His main function in the family is not being the patriarchal example, but more of a spiritual leader. Reb moved to America with his family to escape Poland's political pitfalls but since he refuses to work, he is dependent on his family financially to provide for him and his charities and other humanitarian errands. He stays in his room surrounded by his holy scriptures most days. Reb is the father of four daughters and he uses long spiritual speeches to break their spirit so they would conform to his will. Reb gets involved in the lives of his daughters unreasonably and refuses to let them choose for themselves in anything, let alone who to marry. After his wife's death (the mother of his daughters) Reb remarries but he doesn’t find the support his late wife has given him. Besides Sara, his youngest daughter, only this second wife challenges his worldviews enough to make him patriarchal in actions as he is forced to work to sustain his wife. Since his daughters are not supporting his choice of wife, Reb is left on his own devices completely. His unsuitability for being a 'real man' becomes clear as he falls ill and by chance is found by Sara while selling gum. Sara is the only one of his daughters who realises that Reb is unsuited to support himself and live a life than most. She offers him to live with her and her man in the end, and there is a suggestion, that Reb easily slips back into the moral tyrant that Sara often mentions him to be.
Sara is the youngest daughter in the family and she is also the narrator of the story. Sara is ten years old when the story begins and despite being the youngest, she is the most hardworking and most ambitious of his sisters. Just like her mother and her sisters, she is working whenever the occasion arises to support the family. Seeing how her father’s decisions influenced her sisters’ lives for the worse, Sara eventually (when she becomes 17) rebels against her father and she leaves her parents and starts a life of her own. For the first time, she is working and saving so she can study to become a teacher. At one point, Sara is tempted to marry Max Goldstein (who turns out to be a man picked by his family, most likely her father) because she feels lonely and an outcast but she soon realises that her ambitions are different from that of her family's and Max's expectations. She resumes her studies and soon becomes a college graduate. Sara ends up teaching in her own school close to Hester Street, making her story coming to a full circle. This is where she finds an intellectual love match in Hugo Seelig who loves her and respects her ambitions and thirst for knowledge. In the end, despite her deep-rooted hatred for her father’s ways, Sara is the only one who understands her father, so she asks him to move in with her and Hugo.
Jacob Novak is a piano player from a rich family who falls in love with Mashah. He is driven away by Reb, because he "plays on the Sabbath." Even though he loves Mashah deeply, they both let their families get in the way in that she ends up obeying her father as well as he. Even though Jacob ends up trying to go against his father's will, Mashah ends things with him because Reb makes her choose between him and staying part of the family.
Morris Lipkin is a poor poet Fania falls in love with and with whom she hopes to get married. Because Morris does not have a good financial situation and because of his literary occupation, Reb is against the union between the two and he does everything he can to drive Lipkin away, he even ignores him completely in favour of another guest in the house, which shames him enough to finally stay away from Fania.
Berel is a young man Bessie meets and with whom she falls in love. The feelings seem to be mutual and eventually, he comes to the house to ask for Reb's permission to marry Bessie, despite the fact that Reb can’t pay a dowry for her. Reb says that Bessie is her 'burden bearer' and that if she marries, Berel should pay him so he could set up a business for himself in pain of letting go of her wages. Berel refuses the proposal and ends up marrying another girl, who has a more desirable family situation. In the end, it seems, that Berel becomes materialistic and selfish.
The collector lady
The unnamed lady appears briefly when she tries to collect the rent from the house from Reb. Reb however does not have the money and the lady, getting mad, starts insulting Reb. She is slapped by Reb after she slams shut one of his holy books and causing it to fall on the floor. The lady ends up suing Reb but he walks free shortly after being arrested.
Fania is the third Smolinsky daughter. She is quiet and obedient and is doing everything to maintain her family just like the other members of the Smolinsky family. Fania falls in love with a poor poet named Morris Lipkin but when her father finds out about her infatuation and he is against it because Reb would have had nothing to gain through the marriage, him being poor. Fania is destroyed when Reb manages to drive Morris away but despite this, she still accepts her father’s choice when he finds for her a rich husband. Fania does not have a happy marriage, despite the riches and traveling she suddenly becomes so accustomed to.
Bessie is the oldest of the Smolinsky girls, the 'burden bearer'. Bessie is described as being a dreamer who was lucky enough to find a man who loved her despite the fact that she is neither pretty nor could her parents set her up financially for a good marriage. Bessie saw marriage as a way out from the harsh life she lived but her father opposed the union between Bessie and Berel when Berel refused to set up a business for Reb. Bessie remained loyal to her family and ends up marrying Zalmon, the fish peddler, who is much older than her, and was looking for a young wife through his father (being a matchmaker at the time). Bessie only ends up not running away, because she takes to the youngest of Zalmon's six children, Benny, and her motherly instincts make her marry the father. She thus becomes a stepmother of six and an unhappy wife of the fish peddler.
Mrs. Shena Smolinsky
Mrs Smolinsky is Reb wife, they have four daughters, Bessie, Mashah, Fania and Sara. Mrs Smolinsky is forced to fill in the place left vacant by her husband as the acting head of the family and she tries to earn money through various means, one of which is renting out a room in their house on Hester Street. She is a worrier but has a deep love for her children, Sara being her favorite. She remains loyal to Reb to her untimely death, even though all his bad decisions and always tries to make the best of any given situations her husband often creates. She tries to oppose her husband's ideas and tells him the truth, but is never listened to by him.
Mashah is the second daughter of the Smolinsky family. She is vain and selfish and is said to spend her wages on various beautifying materials, such as clothes, powder and rouge before giving the leftovers to the family. Because of this, she is often called 'empty head'. Just like her sisters, Mashah falls in love with a man named Jacob Novak but because of him 'playing on the Sabbath' Reb doesn’t accept him as a proper suitor for his girl. Mashah ends up marrying a con-man, Moe Mirsky, who seems like a rich diamond dealer. He loses his job and becomes a suit dealer, making the seemingly rich life promised, just as poor as her childhood and an unhappily married mother of three.
Max Goldstein is a business partner with Fania’s husband who comes and visits Sara while she is in New York learning to become a teacher. Max comes to Sara when she is feeling depressed because she feels lonely so Sara feels tempted to marry Max just to escape her loneliness. Max is considered a suitable suitor by Reb so when Sara refuses Max, Reb becomes so angry that he disowns Sara. Max is described as being quite materialistic as well as egoistic, and Sara refuses to let herself be linked with a man whose only interest in life is earning as much money as possible. In fact, Sara even admits that the reason why the relationship between her and Max could never work out was that they wanted rather different things in life.
Mrs Feinstein is the woman Reb married after Mrs Smolinsky dies suddenly. Mrs Feinstein is a widow who lives in the same apartment building as the Smolinskys and she is described as being even more selfish and materialistic than Reb. The only reason why Mrs Feinstein agreed to marry Reb, it turns out, is because she hoped to get the lodge money that Reb gets after Shena's death and she is told that the children will help him with a portion of their salaries to live on. When Mrs Feinstein realizes that Reb doesn’t have money at all and that his children ignore him, she tries to extort money from her step-children. When Reb becomes ill, it seems she is very enthusiastic about the possibility of him dying, so she can get lodge money after him and to have a possibility to remarry better.
Hugo is the principal at the school where Sara teaches. The two had little to no interaction before Mrs. Feinstein sent him a letter blaming Sara for not taking care of her father. However, rather than judging Sara, Hugo proves to be an understanding companion to Sara who, as we find out, grew up in similar circumstances in a similar Jewish family. From that point onwards he becomes indispensable to Sara and they soon become engaged to be married. Hugo, just like Sara, has a deep respect for education and learning so they both have a love and thirst for knowledge, which only brings them closer.
An egoistic con-man who dazzles Reb with his lie of being a diamond dealer and becomes husband to Mashah. However, he loses his job soon after their wedding day and he ends up going into the tailoring business as a help. He also turns out to be a gambler and an abusive partner, who likes to keep up pretenses of being rich.
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