At 96, A Writer Is Born
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.