In this deeply affecting memoir (his first published book), nonagenarian Harry Bernstein evokes with clarity and grace his impoverished childhood in pre-WWI England, a vanished world of grinding hardship and deprivation aggravated even further by ignorance and prejudice. Bernstein zooms in on the small mill town of Stockport, where he and his family lived on the "Jewish side" of the street, divided from their neighbors by an "invisible wall" as effective as any tangible barrier. Yet, in spite of this impenetrable social segregation and against all odds, the author's older sister falls in love with a Christian from across the street, sparking a family crisis as tragic in its own way as Romeo and Juliet. Like Angela's Ashes (another poignant slice of life from a literary late bloomer), Bernstein's gorgeous memoir is an eloquent evocation of a particular time and place.
Harry Bernstein grew up in a small world. In the Lancashire mill town of his childhood, during the teens and twenties of the last century, the poor Jews clustered along a single dead-end street, and even that was only half theirs. Christians lived on one side, Jews on the other, separated by a few feet that might as well have been hundreds of miles. The Invisible Wall, Mr. Bernstein’s heart-wrenching memoir, describes two cultures cohabiting uneasily, prey to misunderstandings that distort lives on both sides. It is a world of pain and prejudice, evoked in spare, restrained prose that brilliantly illuminates a time, a place and a family struggling valiantly to beat impossible odds.
The New York Times
Bernstein writes, "There are few rules or unwritten laws that are not broken when circumstances demand, and few distances that are too great to be traveled," about the figurative divide ("geographically... only a few yards, socially... miles and miles") keeping Jews and Christians apart in the poor Lancashire mill town in England where he was raised. In his affecting debut memoir, the nonagenarian gives voice to a childhood version of himself who witnesses his older sister's love for a Christian boy break down the invisible wall that kept Jewish families from Christians across the street. With little self-conscious authorial intervention, young Harry serves as a wide-eyed guide to a world since dismantled-where "snot rags" are handkerchiefs, children enter the workforce at 12 and religion bifurcates everything, including industry. True to a child's experience, it is the details of domestic life that illuminate the tale-the tenderness of a mother's sacrifice, the nearly Dickensian angst of a drunken father, the violence of schoolyard anti-Semitism, the "strange odors" of "forbidden foods" in neighbor's homes. Yet when major world events touch the poverty-stricken block (the Russian revolution claims the rabbi's son, neighbors leave for WWI), the individual coming-of-age is intensified without being trivialized, and the conversational account takes on the heft of a historical novel with stirring success. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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.
School Library Journal
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.
A debut by a nonagenarian who recalls a Romeo-and-Juliet story involving his older, Jewish sister and a Christian boy from across the street. Bernstein demands that readers suspend more than disbelief; they must also disengage all skepticism, all critical thinking. His memoir offers no specific dates (we know only that we are in the era of World War I), no documentation, no photocopies, no way for an interested (or dubious) reader to verify any of this story. And what a story. When he is four years old, living in a Lancashire mill town, the author serves as a sort of Huck Finn intermediary, carrying secret love messages between two local lovers (Jewish girl, Christian boy). The author's father is a sort of Pap Finn, too-drunken, sullen, occasionally violent. When his daughter wins a scholarship, he goes off on a rant about education and drags her by the hair to the tailor's shop where she must labor beside him. The author's mother, by contrast, is archetypal-patient, hardworking, loving, forgiving. When he is 11, the author discovers that his sister, Lily, is secretly meeting with her forbidden boyfriend, Arthur-and that they are planning to elope. He goes along with them, then returns later to inform his family. All in the neighborhood-Christians and Jews-are angry. But then Lily has a baby; there is a block party for the new arrival, and the little child unites the residents. Two things that trouble: (1) much of the story is presented in verbatim dialogue, including, when the narrator is ten, a long debate about Socialism at the dinner table; (2) the author is always where he needs to be. A neighborhood suicide? He's there. Key letters from Mom to relatives? He writes as Mom dictates.Seems less a memoir, more an autobiographical novel. Caveat lector.
From the Publisher
“Harry Bernstein returns home and, magically, takes us with him. With its dancing prose and captivating descriptions of neighborhood life, we experience with the child Harry all the wonder, thrill, and heartbreak of being a working-class kid learning to navigate the balkanized world of Christians and Jews within a single English mill town. Bernstein gives us a people’s history, a street-level perspective on a world that might otherwise have been lost, with crucial lessons that will endure throughout time.”
–Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of All Souls
“[An] affecting debut memoir . . . When major world events touch the poverty-stricken block, the individual coming-of-age story is intensified without being trivialized, and the conversational account takes on the heft of a historical novel with stirring success.”
–Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
Read an Excerpt
It was one of those rare summer evenings when it did not rain, and the smoke cleared from the atmosphere, leaving the sky a deep blue color, and the air soft and fresh and balmy. It was the kind of evening when people brought their stiff-backed wooden kitchen chairs out to the front to sit and smoke, and perhaps listen to the Forshaws’ gramophone. They were the only people on our street who had one, and they left their door open so that everyone could hear. In the meantime, the sun would sink, a huge red ball, behind the square brick tower of the India Mill. After it disappeared, there would be fiery streaks in the sky, and these would fade gradually as the sky became very pale, and twilight would fall gently, and you would see the glow of pipes or cigarettes along both sides of the street.
We had finished our tea, and my two sisters had quickly disappeared before my mother could get them to clear the table and wash up. My two brothers were about to do the same. Having gulped down the last of their tea, and still chewing on their bread and butter, they were halfway out the door to join their friends in the street when my mother stopped them.
“Take ’arry with you,” she said.
They stared at her in astonishment, not believing what they had heard. Well, I too was surprised.
But my surprise was a pleasant one. Until now I had been the baby of the family, too young to go out and play with them, though I’d always wanted to and had watched them go with silent yearning. Now suddenly all this was changed. I looked up at them, my finger in my mouth, waiting, hopefully, for my fate to be decided.
“Him?” said Joe. He was the oldest of the three boys, big for his nine years, and handsome, too. He spoke as if he couldn’t believe what he had heard. “Him?” he repeated.
“He’s only a baby,” screeched Saul in his high-pitched voice. Saul was a bare year and a half older than I, but considered himself my senior by far.
“He’s not a baby anymore,” my mother said, firmly. “He’s old enough now to go out and play with you and the other boys.”
“But he’ll get in the way,” they both wailed. “He doesn’t know how to play.”
“He’ll soon learn,” my mother insisted. “I don’t want him to stay in the house on a nice night like this, and I’ve got a lot of work to do in the house, otherwise I’d take him out myself. Go on now, take him with you, and mind you keep an eye on him and don’t let him wander off by himself.”
They had no choice, and each one of them took a hand savagely, bitterly, and pulled me out with them. But once outside, and once they caught sight of the other Jewish boys from our side a little distance off, they dropped my hands and rushed toward them, forgetting all about me and ignoring my mother’s warning completely. I trotted after them, and that was about all I was able to do throughout the evening. I was not able to participate in any of the games they played. I simply hung on the fringe of the group. I was ecstatic at having that much, though, at simply being allowed to be with them. I shouted when they shouted, jumped up when they jumped, and imitated all their sounds and movements.
I forget the games they played that night, but the locale was constantly shifted from one part of the street to another. We drifted down to the bottom, then back upward. Eventually we landed at the very top, at the corner in front of the Harris’s house, where they began a noisy game of hopscotch.
This one I do recall, and also that it had grown darker. Twilight would linger for a long time yet, until almost midnight, but it had reached the stage where the sides of the street were becoming hidden in shadow, and the glow of pipes and cigarettes stood out strongly. The sky looked almost white in contrast to the earth, and the outlines of roofs and chimneys were etched sharply against it. We could barely see the chalk marks that had been scribbled on the sidewalk, but that made no difference, and the players hopped madly from square to square, shouting to one another.
In that moment of our midsummer night madness, we had failed to see two people seated outside, a little off to the right on the other side of the doorway. These were the Harrises—old Mr. Harris, who could not have been much more than forty, a squat, heavy, bearded man wearing a bowler hat beneath which was a yarmulke, squinting down at a Jewish newspaper in the fading light, and Mrs. Harris, barely forty perhaps, a little woman wearing the orthodox Jewish woman’s wig, beneath which tiny hen’s eyes peered disapprovingly across at the Christian side.
The Harrises were perhaps the most religious couple on our street. He was an important official of the little synagogue over on Chestergate Avenue that we all attended, and the yarmulke he wore beneath the bowler hat was concealed only because such things could draw laughter or jeers from the Christians, especially from the direction in which Mrs. Harris’s eyes were cast. This was the Turnbull sweets shop. Nothing was to be feared from the immobile figure of the man seated there next to the window. Mr. Turnbull had suffered a stroke some time ago, and was brought out here by his wife to sit, usually for hours, and wait until she was good and ready to bring him in. And at the moment she was in the back room drinking beer with her boarders.
The sounds of their raucous laughter and the clinking of glasses drifted out into the street. The boys Mrs. Turnbull took in were a rough lot, and a blot on the street’s reputation. They were young navvies, the ones who cleaned out the middens, or chimneys, who drank and swore, and who, when they were out on the street and in a ripe mood did not hesitate in hurling slurs about the Jews, and at the Harrises in particular if they happened to be sitting out as they were now.
Tonight, fortunately, they were indoors, but the lovely summer evening must have been marred anyway for the Harrises by our noisy presence. However, they said nothing, and tried to ignore us while the game proceeded right next to the window. As usual, I was kept out of the game, and simply added to the din by joining in the shouting and screaming now and then. But after a while I must have grown tired of this—and perhaps it was getting a bit late for me. My attention began to wander away from them, and suddenly it was caught by a movement from the window. The blind was being drawn up, and the white lace curtains were being parted, and a face showed dimly. It was smiling right at me, and a finger was beck- oning.
I didn’t need to be told who it was. It was Sarah, the youngest of the six Harris girls, and a favorite among us and everyone on the street. She was a sweet, gentle, perpetually smiling girl with lovely features, dark hair, an oval face, and a smooth, delicate complexion. She had been ill lately, and was recovering now. She spent much of her time on the red plush couch in the parlor next to the window, reading one of her little yellow-backed novels, and dipping her fingers daintily into the box of chocolates that was always at her side.
Sometimes, during the day, if we happened to be going by, she would open the window to smile and speak to us, to send some boy or girl on an errand for her perhaps, or simply to talk and to pop one of her chocolates into a lucky mouth. I had often been one of those lucky ones. I think I was one of her favorites. I know, when she was younger, perhaps even as little as a year ago, she used to come into our house to play with my sisters, and would always hug me and kiss me and call me her baby. Then she had stopped playing with my sisters, and had put her hair up. On our street this meant that you were grown up and could go to work. She had gone to work for a while in one of the tailoring shops where all the Jews worked, and then had taken ill. Here she was convalescing, and I was staring at her stupidly through the semi-darkness, wondering what all those signals meant. She was also putting a finger to her lips and shaking her head.
Then, at last, I understood. She wanted me to come in to her, but to do so quietly and secretly without anyone seeing me. That’s what it was, and I hesitated. It was much easier said than done. In the first place, her parents sat near the door. In the second place, you did not walk into the Harrises’ parlor that easily.
It was the only real parlor on our street, thanks to the Harris girls and the one boy, Sam, working and bringing in money. It was furnished in red plush, including even the carpet, a truly elegant place, but reserved for members of the family and special occasions. None of us had ever been invited into it. All we knew was what we’d glimpsed through the window and what we’d heard of it being spoken with awe.
There was something else. Sam’s bike stood in the hall, shiny and gleaming, when Sam was not using it. We’d often peeped in at it when the door was open. It was Sam’s great treasure, and he guarded it as fiercely as a lioness guarded her cub. Let one of us so much as dare creep an inch beyond the doorstep toward it, and he’d come roaring out from the back of the house, his bushy red hair standing up like a wild golliwog.
I’d seen it happen two or three times already and I was terrified of going anywhere near it. Yet I’d have to pass it if I went into the parlor. I stood hesitating for a long time, my finger in my mouth, my eyes glued on her face at the window and the beckoning, beseeching fingers, while the others hopped and screeched madly over their game of hopscotch, and the light on the street grew dimmer. Finally I decided to chance it and slipped in.
Mr. Harris was still peering down at his newspaper, closer to the print than ever, and Mrs. Harris was still burrowing with her hen’s eyes through the dusk at the shadowy figure seated across from her, so they did not see me. I saw the bike the moment I entered the hallway, silvery highlights gleaming on the handlebars, the rest scarcely visible in the darkness. I flattened myself against the wall and crept slowly toward the parlor door to avoid touching it, holding my breath as I went. Once, I halted, hearing a sound in the back of the house, a cough, the movement of feet. But after it grew silent again, I crept on.
I groped for the doorknob, found it, and turned it slowly, and went in. The room was dark, save for the patch of light from the window at the front. There was a rustling, and I saw the shadowy figure sitting upright on the couch. “Over here, luv,” she whispered.
I stumbled past bulky furniture and found my way over to her. She grasped both my arms and stared at me for a moment through the darkness. “You’ve grown so,” she said, keeping her voice down to a whisper. “You’re so big. You’re almost too big to kiss. But I will! I will!” And she did, passionately, drawing me close to her so that I caught the familiar scent of lavender that came from the sachet she always wore tucked away in her tiny bosom.
Finally, releasing me, she whispered, “Does your mother know you’re out so late, ’arry?”
“Would you like to go on an errand for me?”
She gave a glance over my shoulder first, as if to make sure no one was there, then said, “I want you to go to Gordon’s to fetch some ginger beer. Can you do that for me?”
I nodded again, and I might have felt some surprise. It was not an unusual request, and there seemed to be no need for all her whispering and secrecy. I may not have gone to Gordon’s myself before this, but I had gone often with one of my brothers or sisters. Especially when somebody in the family was sick, because it was believed that ginger beer had medicinal qualities.
She did not stop her whispering though, and in fact glanced over my shoulder once more before she resumed. “Take this empty back with you,” she said, thrusting a bottle into my hand. “But first, ’arry”—she brought her mouth so close to my ear as she went on that I could feel the warm breath coming from it—“before you go in the shop, look to make sure Freddy’s there. I don’t want you to give the bottle to anybody except Freddy. Not Florrie, not the old man. Just Freddy. Do you understand?”
“Yis,” I said, speaking this time because the urgency of her tone seemed to demand it.
“And here’s a thrippeny bit.” She put the tiny coin into my other hand. “There’ll be a penny change and you can keep it.”
My heart leaped. A whole penny! I couldn’t wait to be off, but she held on to me a moment longer, and whispered in my ear. “Be very careful, ’arry. Don’t tell anybody where you’re going, and remember what I said, don’t let anybody wait on you, except Freddy. You look through the window first to make sure he’s there, and if he isn’t you just wait until he comes along before you go in. Do you hear me now?”
Finally I was off, and I made my way out of the room much faster than I’d come in, and my excitement over the penny was so great that I bumped into Sam’s bike, and immediately a great roar came from the back of the house.
I must have flown out of the house. I know I put all caution aside as I dashed out, and the two Harrises, catching a glimpse of me as I went past them, must have been bewildered. They were probably never able to make out what had happened, or where I’d come from, or even who I was.
All they saw was the small figure of a boy dashing across the street, disappearing into the Christian darkness.
From the Hardcover edition.