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Review of The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein (Ballantine Books, 2007).
The Wall--whether speaking literally or figuratively, standing between Israel and Palestine, the U.S. and Mexico, East and West Germany, or two sides of a narrow street in Lancashire, England--is a site of resistance, transition, trauma, and change. Walls, borders and boundaries are no man's lands where identities are tested and shaped.
The Invisible Wall, Harry Bernstein's powerful memoir of his formative years in pre- and postwar England, documents life in a working-class mill town in Lancashire. The invisible wall refers to the impenetrable force field that existed between Jews and Christians living on opposite sides of the unassuming cobblestoned street of Bernstein's childhood. From its ephemeral existence sprung a hard-wired sense of identity for Bernstein that gave meaning and substance to a life shaped as much by hope and love as struggle and loss.
In a literary era dripping with syrupy memoirs about dysfunctional childhoods, Bernstein's raw and unpretentious tale comes as a welcome surprise. With clarity and charm, this coming-of-age story moves beyond the self-indulgence of lamenting the past to capture the true reason why we are compelled to create narratives of our lives: to make sense of them, to find meaning in them, to bear witness to the past and to find clarity in the future. His voice resonates with vivid imagery to create colorful tableaus of English-Jewish life, while simultaneous imprinting on reader's minds a grainy black-and-white photo of a forgotten era.
Readers are instantly transported to 1930s England, where we have the voyeuristic sense of peering into Bernstein's parlor room as he sits by the fire and delicately peels off the tough skin of a life shaped by poverty, war, and loss to reveal the sweet seeds of hope and potential that lie within. Although Christians and Jews lived freely side by side, it was perhaps the physical proximity and minimal outright hostility that made the subtle undercurrent of fear and bias all the more apparent. Jewish children did not go into Christian homes or stores. Although Harry and his brothers had to watch for the "batesemas" (Christian bullies who beat up Jewish kids) in the streets on the way home from school, Christian neighbors across the way left the door open so the entire street could enjoy a free concert from their gramophone. Such contradictory behavior demonstrates both the irony and the social necessity of the invisible wall.
Both Harry--the wise old man looking back on his life--and 'arry--the boy with ragged knickers and a dirt-streaked face--are keen observers, perceptive judges of character, and courageous enough to tell the story of a life as it was, not how they wish it could be. The sound of clogs on cobblestones at sunrise, Harry's trembling hands as he brought afternoon tea to his volatile, emotionally distant father at his tailoring shop, and the "fire goy" that came to the house to light the stove on Shabbos (the Sabbath), resurrect a distinctive time and place.
It is within this social climate that Harry unknowingly becomes complicit in a scandalous love affair between a Jewish neighbor and Christian, and later bears witness to a forbidden childhood friendship between his older sister and Arthur Foreshaw, a Christian who lives across the street. Harry becomes privy to top-secret information about his sister's transgression as the love between Jew and Christian blossoms into a heady, passionate romance that leads to clandestine meetings and narrow escapes.
In the era of the "invisible wall," a Jewish girl who married a Christian boy was considered dead to her family. As his sister's confidant and his mother's little boy, Harry is mired in a moral quandary. As both Harry and his sister negotiate the line between allegiance to one's family and one's own desires, readers see the evolving relationship between families on both sides of the invisible wall. Bernstein offers readers lessons of hope couched between coarse anecdotes of war and struggle that make the lessons all the more powerful. He manages to embed universal life lessons in his own story without ever sounding didactic or preachy.
Overall, Bernstein has the remarkable ability to snatch up a memory with the innocent curiosity of his 5-year-old self, while tempering his naiveté with the nostalgia and insight of a 96-year-old. It is through this rare combination of innocence and wisdom that we get both a bird's-eye perspective and a down-in-the-trenches view of Jewish life in 1930's England, World War II, interfaith romance, and the coming of age of a boy growing up in a world that was neither hospitable or kind. There is a sense that the story has been gestating for decades, and only after sufficiently marinating in distance and perspective was Bernstein able to share it. The Invisible Wall was burning to be told.