Monday, March 8, 2010

The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein 2007

"Mr. Bernstein, with great economy and skill, maneuvers an extensive cast of characters onto his small stage and lets their stories play out within the larger historical and social context." William Grimes, New York Times

This mesmerizing account of growing up Jewish and poor in a Lancashire mill town outside of Manchester, England in the early years of the 20th century through WWI has all the hallmarks of a literary tale beautifully told. Here the Jews, mostly immigrants from Poland, worked as tailors; the Christians mostly operated machines in the textile mills. Bernstein gives the reader a detailed view of the living conditions of his family and their financial struggles, and he also describes scenes of the working lives of the Jewish tailors.

The author, born in 1910,  describes the daily life of both the Jewish and Christian communities of his youth. Living on opposite sides of the street, the two communities, despite blatant anti-Semitism, formed tense but often mutually beneficial relationships. The memoir ends when the author is 12 and the family (all but his sister Lily) leaves England for Chicago to join his father's family who had already emigrated. Bernstein subsequently wrote a second volume, The Dream, that picks up where The Invisible Wall leaves off. (The Dream is the subject of the next post.)

The Invisible Wall, which got rave reviews, made a splash because it was received so favorably by the critics, but also because the author was in his 90’s when he wrote it. It challenges the memoir form in that it reads like fiction – full of dialogue between him and others, and dialogue overheard by him that he couldn’t possibly be remembering word for word. He also quotes from letters he helped his mother write to his father’s relatives in America. That being said, this beautifully rendered portrait of an early 20th-century Jewish community in North England that disappeared long ago plumbs deep truths and is a very satisfying, informative read.

Includes family photos.

For a very interesting interview with the author that covers topics like anti-semitism in  England and his views of the difference between being Jewish in England and America click here.

Added on June 7, 2011: To read the New York Times obituary on the death of Harry Bernstein in June, 2011, click here.

Yankel Bernstein – author’s father
Ada Bernstein - author's mother
Their children:
    Joe Bernstein
    Saul Bernstein
    Lily Bernstein
    Rose Bernstein
    Harry Bernstein (author)
    Sydney Bernstein

Stockport, England

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