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At age 93, first-time author Bernstein has crafted a gripping coming-of-age memoir of his childhood in a poverty-stricken and religiously divided mill town in northern England before and during World War I. Home to both Christian and Jewish families, the street where Bernstein grew up was defined by the strict social and vocational segregation of the two religious groups. Bernstein deftly narrates the tale of his sister's forbidden love for a Christian boy from the other side of the street. From the perspective of his boyhood self, Bernstein offers a glimpse into a family riven by poverty, sibling jealousies, and an abusive, alcoholic father yet held together tenaciously by a caring mother. Bernstein's graceful, unsentimental writing depicts fleeting moments of humanity and gentleness in a brutal world. In the tradition of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashesor Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, this harsh yet inspiring memoir will appeal to readers seeking evidence of the power of the human spirit to overcome prejudice and hardship. Recommended for all public libraries.
When Bernstein, who is in his 90s, was a boy, his older sister, Lily, was in love with Arthur. This would not have been a problem except that Arthur was Christian and Lily was Jewish, and in their pre-Great War mill town in northern England, an invisible wall ran down their street, separating them. Neighbors rarely crossed those few cobblestoned feet. In winter, the Jews built a snow slide on their side and the Christians built one on theirs. There was not much other frivolity in those hard times. Home was not a happy place for Harry, his mother, and his five brothers and sisters when his mean, alcoholic father was there. When 12-year-old Lily won a scholarship to grammar school, her father dragged her by the hair to work with him. Harry's mother started a shop in her front room to make ends meet, selling slightly damaged fruit and providing a place for socializing and gossip. She always hoped for better, having Harry write letters to their relatives in America, beseeching them on a regular basis to send passage for her family, and then, finally, only for Lily when the lovers were discovered. Barriers were finally broken as Lily refused to give up either Arthur or her mother. Readers will be taken with this memoir, reminiscent of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes (Scribner, 1996). It will grab them from the start, drawing them into an intimate relationship with Harry, Lily, their mother, and the various neighbors who lived on their street.
—Ellen BellCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
1. How would you describe The Invisible Wall? A social history exposing religious prejudice? A story of star-crossed lovers? A young boy’s coming of age?
2. Harry’s sister Rose dreams of one day having a parlor and a piano; why does she consider her mother’s faded fruit shop to be a betrayal?
3. If you were in young Harry’s position, would you have kept Lily’s love affair a secret? What was at stake for Harry in maintaining his silence?
4. Despite all that divides them, there is a level of everyday mutual dependence linking the Jews and Christians of Bernstein’s street– gaps in the invisible wall, so to speak. What examples of this mutual dependence can you think of, and do they work to dismantle the wall or to reinforce it?
5. Harry’s mother is a remarkable woman. Her selﬂess acts sustain the impoverished family, and yet she disowns her daughter for marrying a Christian boy. Discuss this seeming contradiction in her character, and how she ultimately reconciles it within her own heart.
6. In the accompanying interview, Harry Bernstein states that “wars always bring people face-to-face with reality, causing false barriers to disappear.” Do you agree or disagree?
7. By encouraging Lily to improve herself through education, is her mother sowing the seeds that ultimately lead to Lily’s dissatisfaction with the boundaries of Judaism and her involvement with her Christian neighbor, Arthur?
8. Why do you think Lily’s father prevents her from going to the grammar school after she’s won the scholarship?
9. What does America represent tothe Bernstein family?
10. Fatherhood and forgiveness are important themes in Bernstein’s story. Do you think Bernstein has forgiven his father? Do you think his father deserves to be forgiven? On the other hand, what do you think of the rabbi’s son, Max? Does he betray his father and his faith by going to Russia to ﬁght in the revolution?
11. Have you ever experienced living in a divided community, like the street on which Harry lived as a child? Reﬂect on the religious, class, or racial separations you may encounter in today’s society, both outwardly and self-imposed.
12. Harry Bernstein published his ﬁrst memoir in his nineties; what are your own dreams, and how does Bernstein’s story inspire you to reach for them?