At 96, A Writer Is Born

Memoir

By Juliet Lapidos

Published June 01, 2007, issue of June 01, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Dropped From Heaven
By Sophie Judah
Schocken Books, 243 pages, $23.

Walls and barriers have made front-page news lately. There’s the concrete wall going up between Israel and the Palestinian territories, and the reinforced fence along the United States-Mexico border. These recent developments make Harry Bernstein’s memoir, “The Invisible Wall,” especially pertinent.

Bernstein, now 96 and living in Brick, N.J., grew up in the working-class section of a Lancashire, England, mill town. As he says in his memoir, the street where he spent his youth was a “miniature ghetto, for there was an invisible wall between the two sides” separating Jews from Christians. There was no physical division — no brick and mortar — and “the distance from one side to the other, geographically, was only a few yards.” Yet “the distance socially could have been miles and miles.”

On the eve of World War I, Bernstein’s Jewish family lived in the kind of crushing poverty that people now associate with the Third World. Harry’s father, a low-level tailor, squandered his meager salary at the pub. To help make ends meet, his mother, a woman of near saintly generosity, sold fruit discarded by grocers. At night, Harry, the youngest child, shared a single bed with his older brothers, Joe and Saul. His sisters, Lily and Rose, shared another single bed in the adjoining room. There was never enough food, and no running water. And their story was far from an exception. The Bernstein’s Jewish neighbors struggled to pay the bills, as did the Christians over on the forbidden side of the street. Poverty, however, did not level the differences. Rough Christian youths, or “batesmas,” as Bernstein refers to them, beat up their Jewish schoolfellows, and the Jews were equally bigoted, looking down upon the Christians who worked in mills instead of in shops, and who wore iron-shod clogs instead of leather shoes.

Two incidents, which form the two central dramas of “The Invisible Wall,” reveal to the young Harry that religious segregation is neither desirable nor inevitable. The first incident is an interfaith relationship between Sarah Harris, the daughter of a synagogue official, and Freddy Gordon, who works in a small convenience store. Harry, just 5 years old at the time, helps the young couple by carrying messages from one to the other. Eventually, Sarah’s parents get wind of the situation, and their reaction, to say the least, is harsh: Sarah is beaten and confined to the house until she’s shipped off to Australia.

The second incident mirrors the first: Harry’s sister, Lily, falls in love with Arthur Forshaw, a Christian, and Harry, once again, becomes an accomplice. Harry is older the second time around, and better able to process his sister’s feelings, so the angst of the Romeo and Juliet situation is more palpable for the reader. In the end, Lily and Arthur fare better than Sarah and Freddy, but the endurance of their relationship is brought on by youthful fortitude and subterfuge, not by the approval of their families.

Stylistically, Bernstein favors symbolic extremes over verisimilitude. Harry’s father is a force of malice and suffering, a Dickensian monster rather than a three-dimensional character; Lily is amazingly devoted and, as a result, quite dull; Harry’s other sister, Rose, is so warped by jealousy that she becomes like her father — more wicked witch than flesh and blood. It often seems as though Bernstein consciously sacrifices autobiographical realism in order to bolster his anti-segregationist message.

Ultimately, then, “The Invisible Wall” reads like a morality tale rather than a memoir, but given Bernstein’s preadolescent experiences, his fervor is understandable. Moreover, given the persistence of religious prejudice, his fervor is valid and timely.

Juliet Lapidos is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.