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The Invisible Wall
Cover of The Invisible Wall
The Invisible Wall
A Love Story That Broke Barriers
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This wonderfully charming memoir, written when the author was 93, vibrantly brings to life an all-but-forgotten time and place. It is a moving tale of working-class life, and of the boundaries that can...
This wonderfully charming memoir, written when the author was 93, vibrantly brings to life an all-but-forgotten time and place. It is a moving tale of working-class life, and of the boundaries that can...
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Description-

  • This wonderfully charming memoir, written when the author was 93, vibrantly brings to life an all-but-forgotten time and place. It is a moving tale of working-class life, and of the boundaries that can be overcome by love.
    "There are places that I have never forgotten. A little cobbled street in a smoky mill town in the North of England has haunted me for the greater part of my life. It was inevitable that I should write about it and the people who lived on both sides of its 'Invisible Wall.' "
    The narrow street where Harry Bernstein grew up, in a small English mill town, was seemingly unremarkable. It was identical to countless other streets in countless other working-class neighborhoods of the early 1900s, except for the "invisible wall" that ran down its center, dividing Jewish families on one side from Christian families on the other. Only a few feet of cobblestones separated Jews from Gentiles, but socially, it they were miles apart.
    On the eve of World War I, Harry's family struggles to make ends meet. His father earns little money at the Jewish tailoring shop and brings home even less, preferring to spend his wages drinking and gambling. Harry's mother, devoted to her children and fiercely resilient, survives on her dreams: new shoes that might secure Harry's admission to a fancy school; that her daughter might marry the local rabbi; that the entire family might one day be whisked off to the paradise of America.
    Then Harry's older sister, Lily, does the unthinkable: She falls in love with Arthur, a Christian boy from across the street.
    When Harry unwittingly discovers their secret affair, he must choose between the morals he's been taught all his life, his loyalty to his selfless mother, and what he knows to be true in his own heart.

Excerpts-

  • Chapter One It was one of those rare summer evenings when it did not rain, and the smoke cleared from the atmosphere, leaving the sky a deep blue color, and the air soft and fresh and balmy. It was the kind of evening when people brought their stiff-backed wooden kitchen chairs out to the front to sit and smoke, and perhaps listen to the Forshaws' gramophone. They were the only people on our street who had one, and they left their door open so that everyone could hear. In the meantime, the sun would sink, a huge red ball, behind the square brick tower of the India Mill. After it disappeared, there would be fiery streaks in the sky, and these would fade gradually as the sky became very pale, and twilight would fall gently, and you would see the glow of pipes or cigarettes along both sides of the street.

    We had finished our tea, and my two sisters had quickly disappeared before my mother could get them to clear the table and wash up. My two brothers were about to do the same. Having gulped down the last of their tea, and still chewing on their bread and butter, they were halfway out the door to join their friends in the street when my mother stopped them.

    "Take 'arry with you," she said.

    They stared at her in astonishment, not believing what they had heard. Well, I too was surprised.

    But my surprise was a pleasant one. Until now I had been the baby of the family, too young to go out and play with them, though I'd always wanted to and had watched them go with silent yearning. Now suddenly all this was changed. I looked up at them, my finger in my mouth, waiting, hopefully, for my fate to be decided.

    "Him?" said Joe. He was the oldest of the three boys, big for his nine years, and handsome, too. He spoke as if he couldn't believe what he had heard. "Him?" he repeated.

    "He's only a baby," screeched Saul in his high-pitched voice. Saul was a bare year and a half older than I, but considered himself my senior by far.

    "He's not a baby anymore," my mother said, firmly. "He's old enough now to go out and play with you and the other boys."

    "But he'll get in the way," they both wailed. "He doesn't know how to play."

    "He'll soon learn," my mother insisted. "I don't want him to stay in the house on a nice night like this, and I've got a lot of work to do in the house, otherwise I'd take him out myself. Go on now, take him with you, and mind you keep an eye on him and don't let him wander off by himself."

    They had no choice, and each one of them took a hand savagely, bitterly, and pulled me out with them. But once outside, and once they caught sight of the other Jewish boys from our side a little distance off, they dropped my hands and rushed toward them, forgetting all about me and ignoring my mother's warning completely. I trotted after them, and that was about all I was able to do throughout the evening. I was not able to participate in any of the games they played. I simply hung on the fringe of the group. I was ecstatic at having that much, though, at simply being allowed to be with them. I shouted when they shouted, jumped up when they jumped, and imitated all their sounds and movements.

    I forget the games they played that night, but the locale was constantly shifted from one part of the street to another. We drifted down to the bottom, then back upward. Eventually we landed at the very top, at the corner in front of the Harris's house, where they began a noisy game of hopscotch.

    This one I do recall, and also that it had grown darker. Twilight would linger for a long time yet, until almost midnight, but it had reached the stage where the sides of the street were becoming hidden in shadow, and the glow of pipes and...

About the Author-

  • Ninety-six-year-old Harry Bernstein emigrated to the United States with his family after World War I. He has written all his life but started writing The Invisible Wall only after the death of his wife, Ruby. He has been published in "My Turn" in Newsweek. Bernstein lives in Brick, New Jersey, where he is working on another book.

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from December 11, 2006
    Bernstein writes, "There are few rules or unwritten laws that are not
    \t\t broken when circumstances demand, and few distances that are too great to be
    \t\t traveled," about the figurative divide ("geographically... only a few yards,
    \t\t socially... miles and miles") keeping Jews and Christians apart in the poor
    \t\t Lancashire mill town in England where he was raised. In his affecting debut
    \t\t memoir, the nonagenarian gives voice to a childhood version of himself who
    \t\t witnesses his older sister's love for a Christian boy break down the invisible
    \t\t wall that kept Jewish families from Christians across the street. With little
    \t\t self-conscious authorial intervention, young Harry serves as a wide-eyed guide
    \t\t to a world since dismantled—where "snot rags" are handkerchiefs, children
    \t\t enter the workforce at 12 and religion bifurcates everything, including
    \t\t industry. True to a child's experience, it is the details of domestic life that
    \t\t illuminate the tale—the tenderness of a mother's sacrifice, the nearly
    \t\t Dickensian angst of a drunken father, the violence of schoolyard anti-Semitism,
    \t\t the "strange odors" of "forbidden foods" in neighbor's homes. Yet when major
    \t\t world events touch the poverty-stricken block (the Russian revolution claims
    \t\t the rabbi's son, neighbors leave for WWI), the individual coming-of-age is
    \t\t intensified without being trivialized, and the conversational account takes on
    \t\t the heft of a historical novel with stirring success.

  • School Library Journal

    June 1, 2007
    Adult/High School -When Bernstein, who is in his 90s, was a boy, his older sister, Lily, was in love with Arthur. This would not have been a problem except that Arthur was Christian and Lily was Jewish, and in their pre-Great War mill town in northern England, an invisible wall ran down their street, separating them. Neighbors rarely crossed those few cobblestoned feet. In winter, the Jews built a snow slide on their side and the Christians built one on theirs. There was not much other frivolity in those hard times. Home was not a happy place for Harry, his mother, and his five brothers and sisters when his mean, alcoholic father was there. When 12-year-old Lily won a scholarship to grammar school, her father dragged her by the hair to work with him. Harry's mother started a shop in her front room to make ends meet, selling slightly damaged fruit and providing a place for socializing and gossip. She always hoped for better, having Harry write letters to their relatives in America, beseeching them on a regular basis to send passage for her family, and then, finally, only for Lily when the lovers were discovered. Barriers were finally broken as Lily refused to give up either Arthur or her mother. Readers will be taken with this memoir, reminiscent of Frank McCourt'sAngela's Ashes (Scribner, 1996). It will grab them from the start, drawing them into an intimate relationship with Harry, Lily, their mother, and the various neighbors who lived on their street.Ellen Bell, Amador Valley High School, Pleasanton, CA

    Copyright 2007 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    March 15, 2007
    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'sAngela's Ashes or Anzia Yezierska'sBread 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.Ingrid Levin, Salve Regina Univ. Lib., Newport, RI

    Copyright 2007 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of All Souls "Harry Bernstein returns home and, magically, takes us with him. With its dancing prose and captivating descriptions of neighborhood life, we experience with the child Harry all the wonder, thrill, and heartbreak of being a working-class kid learning to navigate the balkanized world of Christians and Jews within a single English mill town. Bernstein gives us a people's history, a street-level perspective on a world that might otherwise have been lost, with crucial lessons that will endure throughout time."
  • Publisher's Weekly (starred review) "[An] affecting debut memoir . . . When major world events touch the poverty-stricken block, the individual coming-of-age story is intensified without being trivialized, and the conversational account takes on the heft of a historical novel with stirring success."

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