Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Dream by Harry Bernstein 2008

"Bernstein describes their struggles and his mother's perseverance without a trace of self-dramatization or self-pity, in quiet prose that sometimes touches poetry." Juliet Wittman, The Washington Post

This memoir, a sequel to The Invisible Wall (subject of the previous post) which was published in 2007, is an interesting portrayal of the life of a Jewish immigrant family who in 1922 came to Chicago from Stockport, England when the author was twelve.  They are coming to the States to join Bernstein’s father’s family who had immigrated some years back. Confident that they will be leaving poverty behind, Harry’s mother, in particular, is shocked to find that many people in America struggle to survive. They suffer the same fate. It seems no easier to survive in the new world, than in the old.

In the early chapters we are introduced to the large, almost larger than life Bernstein clan in Chicago: the domineering grandmother, the very eccentric grandfather and the many siblings and their spouses who come to meet the new arrivals. Because life in Chicago isn’t easy, when Harry graduates from high school the family, except for his sister Rose, follows his older brother who had already moved to New York. First they live in Brooklyn and then in the Bronx. Of course they hope to do better, but the country is in the throes of the Depression. Eventually the author makes a life for himself without the college degree he yearned for. The memoir ends on the sad note of the death of his mother who never saw her way out of poverty.

This follow-up to Harry Bernstein’s The Invisible Wall has a very interesting Dickensian-like cast of characters who help flesh out for us what it was like to be an immigrant in America and to struggle and survive the Depression. In The Invisible Wall being observant Jews in the small English town where they lived is a prominent theme. The family's Jewish identity does not play much of a role in The Wall. Of course their experiences as immigrants mirrors the experiences of many Jewish immigrants.

There have been many discussions in the press about Bernstein's vivid memory. He wrote both memoirs when he was in his 90's.To read the first chapter of The Dream, click here.

Added 6/7/2011: To read the New York Times obituary for Harry Bernstein who died at the age of  101 in June of 2011, click here.

Author’s immediate family:
    Yankel Bernstein – his father
    Ada Bernstein – his mother
    Their children:
        Joe Bernstein
        Rose Bernstein –  marries Jim Morse
        Harry Bernstein (author)
        Sydney Bernstein

Chicago Bernsteins:
    Grandparents not named
    Their children:
    Barney Bernstein – married Rose
    Morris Bernstein – married Leah
    Ada Bernstein – married Louis
    Dora Bernstein
    Lily Bernstein – married Phil;  married Peo
    Sophie Bernstein – married Sam
    Abe Bernstein – married and divorced Lizzie
    Saul Bernstein – married Estelle; had son Irwin
    Eli Bernstein
    Yankel Bernstein - author's father

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