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Invisible Wall (Bernstein) - Book Reviews

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




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