February 21, 2008
Bernstein’s Great Wall
Over the last few months, as last year came to a close and this new one began, and as a side benefit of watching less TV during the strike, I decided to tackle a stack of them.
As is often the case, the books I read could be classified as, to borrow a title from Sergio Leone, "the good, the bad and the ugly." Although the great majority were not worth discussing, one stood out.
Every so often, I read a book that is extraordinary, a book that is so good, so well written, so moving, so memorable that you just want to holler out: Read this! Such a book is "The Invisible Wall" by Harry Bernstein (Ballantine, $14).
"The Invisible Wall" is a memoir of growing up in Stockport, a small factory town in Northern England, not far from Manchester, in the years just before and following the First World War. It is the tale of Harry Bernstein from age 4 to 12 and of his Orthodox observant family and of life in the poorest section of town, on a narrow street where one side was populated by Jews and the other side by non-Jews -- an invisible wall separating them. Although the book is about the extreme poverty, harsh conditions and bigotry under which they lived, it is also a Romeo and Juliet tale of the romance between his older sister and a boy from across the street.
In no way am I discovering an unknown book. "The Invisible Wall" received glowing reviews in a wide variety of publications, and there several features appeared about the author. Bernstein received considerable attention as an author making his "debut" at the age of 96.
In truth, Bernstein had been published before -- a few short stories in his 20s. He had tried a novel in his youth, which was not published. He turned to a career writing for trade magazines. In 1950, he wrote a three-part recollection called, "Twelve Years in a Jewish Ghetto," for a Jewish newspaper (he was paid a reported $100). Despite this, he did not really return to writing about his childhood until recently.
As Bernstein explained to Mokoto Rich in the International Herald Tribune, two events contributed to his writing his memoir. One, his wife died; he found the loneliness overwhelming and to fill the time he began to write. Second, having lived past 90, Bernstein found that his early memories came back to him so strongly that he had to write them down. He had tried as a younger man to render these stories as fiction, but the truth behind them was too great to fictionalize.
"I realized then why I had failed in writing novels," he said, "because I turned away from personal experience and depended on imagination."
Despite the reviews and features, I was unprepared for the way the book draws you in. "Dickensian" is the word that comes to mind for the world Bernstein describes; "Hobbesian" for the brutishness of his father; "heartbreaking," for the events that occur. I found myself hurrying to pick the book up, yet needing to take a breath at each chapter to recover from the sting of events. All this speaks to the artistry and to the truth with which Bernstein renders his story.
Bernstein has an uncanny ability to make you appreciate the inner lives of his characters, their dreams, their ambitions, their struggles and disappointment -- not only on his side of the street but also in the lives of the non-Jewish residents he comes to know. Bernstein plays a part in their lives, wittingly and unwittingly, and every event is deeply felt.
He was the fifth of seven children born to Polish immigrants who had come to England and were living in a city where the non-Jews worked in the textile mills, and the Jews in the tailoring shops servicing them. Although their religion informs and insulates their lives, we see how World War I and its casualties bring each side together, and also how the Russian Revolution and the promise of socialism affects the idealists among them. (There is a marvelous portrait drawn of a newly arrived young rabbi from Russia, who tells a disbelieving listener about how the revolution, made to promote equality, has already turned against the Jews.) It is a world where bigotry reigns on both sides of the street and where hopes, like Icarus, fall when they dare to fly too high. That being said, the strength of Bernstein's book is that it is not critical or judgmental. It is a book about surviving one's past -- yet cherishing the details of that lost world as well.
"The Invisible Wall" reminds us of all the things we take for granted from the shoes on our feet, to the food on our plate, to our educations, to our choice of spouse and the way we live our lives. Part of me cries out to read this book to my daughter at night, but that may put me back in the should have category.
In my case, certainly, the reviews were the reason I bought Bernstein's book, but, at the same time, the articles about Bernstein himself may well have been the reason that I didn't get around to reading "The Invisible Wall": I thought I knew what the book was. I forgot: Sometimes a book transcends what you assume it is by being great.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.