Invisible Wall (Bernstein)

The Invisible Wall:  A Love Story That Broke Barriers
Harry Bernstein, 2007
Random House
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780345496102

There are places that I have never forgotten. A little cobbled street in a smoky mill town in the North of England has haunted me for the greater part of my life. It was inevitable that I should write about it and the people who lived on both sides of its "Invisible Wall."

The narrow street where Harry Bernstein grew up, in a small English mill town, was seemingly unremarkable. It was identical to countless other streets in countless other working-class neighborhoods of the early 1900s, except for the “invisible wall” that ran down its center, dividing Jewish families on one side from Christian families on the other. Only a few feet of cobblestones separated Jews from Gentiles, but socially, it they were miles apart.

On the eve of World War I, Harry’s family struggles to make ends meet. His father earns little money at the Jewish tailoring shop and brings home even less, preferring to spend his wages drinking and gambling. Harry’s mother, devoted to her children and fiercely resilient, survives on her dreams: new shoes that might secure Harry’s admission to a fancy school; that her daughter might marry the local rabbi; that the entire family might one day be whisked off to the paradise of America.

Then Harry’s older sister, Lily, does the unthinkable: She falls in love with Arthur, a Christian boy from across the street.

When Harry unwittingly discovers their secret affair, he must choose between the morals he’s been taught all his life, his loyalty to his selfless mother, and what he knows to be true in his own heart.

A wonderfully charming memoir written when the authorwas ninety-three, The Invisible Wall vibrantly brings to life an all-but-forgotten time and place. It is a moving tale of working-class life, and of the boundaries that can be overcome by love. (From the publisher.)

Bernstein published The Dream, a sequel to The Invisible Wall, in 2008

Author Bio 
Birth—May 30, 1910
Where—Stockport, England, UK
Currently—lives in Brick Township, New Jersey, USA

Harry Bernstein is the author of The Invisible Wall, which deals with his abusive, alcoholic father, the anti-Semitism he encountered growing up in a Lancashire mill town (Stockport— now part of Greater Manchester) in north west England, and the Romeo and Juliet romance experienced by his sister and her Christian lover. The book was started when he was 93 and published in 2007 when he was 96. The loneliness he encountered following the death of his wife, Ruby, in 2002 after 67 years of marriage was the catalyst for Bernstein to begin work on his book.

According to an article by Associated Press writer, Rebecca Santana, Bernstein first sent the finished manuscript to New York publishers but, having no luck, he sent it to the London office of Random House. There the book sat for about a year until it came across the desk of editor Kate Elton, who described it as "unputdownable."

"I think he's a most fantastic writer," Elton said. "He creates the characters of his family so vividly and tells such a moving story."

He finished writing his second book, The Dream, which centers on his family’s move to the United States when he was twelve. It was published in 2008.

Recently, he published his third book, The Golden Willow, which is the third memoir of his series involving his married life and later years.

Before his retirement at age 62, Bernstein worked for various movie production companies reading scripts and working as a magazine editor for trade magazines, and also wrote freelance articles for such publications as Popular Mechanics, Jewish American Monthly and Newsweek.

Bernstein currently lives in Brick Township, New Jersey. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
In a forthright voice and with heartbreaking details, the book is a chronicle of the bigotry the family suffered, their struggles to make ends meet, and a Romeo and Juliet romance involving Bernstein's oldest sister.... The book is filled with rich dialogue, intense political debates and long quotations from letters that no longer exist. Bernstein acknowledges that he took some creative license. "The memoir is not necessarily an accurate day-to-day detailing of your life," he said. But, he continued, "certain scenes are projected in your mind as if they are on a screen and you are looking at it."
Motoko Rich - New York Times

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.
William Grimes - New York Times Book Review

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.
Publishers Weekly

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 Ashes or 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
Library Journal

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.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
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 to the 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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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