October 2015Volume 7Number 1PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Book review

The book I have chosen for this review was selected not only for its content, but also for the fact that this was a first book completed and published when the author was 93 years old. Obviously, as a senior lawyer, I became very interested in this accomplishment.

The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein was published in 2007, and it is available in paperback (some 297 pages) and electronically.

The author wrote it as a form of therapy for him after his wife of some 60 years died in 2003.

It is an autobiography of the author’s early childhood from age 4 in 1914 to 1922 while living in Lancashire England, which was approximately 8 miles from Manchester. The author and his family lived on a short narrow cobblestone street which divided his and all of the other Jewish families on his side of the street from all of the Christian families on the other side of the street.

Most, if not all, of the families on the Jewish side were refugees from Russia and Poland, who came to England before the Russian Revolution.

Many of the adult Christians on the other side of the street, while not causing physical harm to these Jews, were condescending to them and felt like they/England did them a favor by taking them in from the persecutions taking place in Eastern Europe at the time. The term “our Jews” was spoken many times among these Christians and directly to the Jews.

When there was physical abuse, it was from gangs of Christian school children against the Jewish children, who attended predominately Christian schools.

The men on the street were also divided in their jobs, with the Christians working in the city’s mills and the Jews working in its tailor shops.

In preparation for Saturday Shabbos, chicken soup was usually prepared before sundown on Friday by the Jewish families, because after that they would have to hire “fire goys” from across the street for a penny or two to torch fires in grates and lift pots from the fires.

Otherwise, distance was maintained by both the Christians and the Jews on the street. From the book, it did not appear that any Jews ever entered a Christian home.

However, with the casualties and tragedies bestowed on families on both sides of the street during World War I, the residents did come together, albeit briefly, to console each other in the street between their homes.

Harry’s mother was the heroine in his story, and she constantly struggled through a loveless marriage to maintain her family of 5 children (a sixth child was born later in the book). A reviewer from “USA Today” made some comparisons between her and the mother described in the book “Angela’s Ashes”.

On the other hand, Harry’s father was described as being perhaps one notch above an unemotional, selfish beast.

When the father was quite young and living in Poland, his mother and father abandoned him because of his drinking and fighting. After an emotional outburst and hospitalization, Harry’s father worked his way across Europe to find his parents in England. When his father made such a ruckus trying to break into Harry’s grandparents’ home one very early morning, his grandmother dumped a well used bedpan on his father outside her front door.

To get rid of him and to save face among her Jewish friends, the father’s mother decided to find him a nice young Jewish refugee to marry, namely Harry’s mother, who was 16 when she arrived in England from Poland. To make sure Harry’s father stayed in England, while the rest of his family came to America, he and Harry’s mother were given a wedding present of the father’s parents’ home, which is where Harry grew up.

With all of the love and respect that Harry had for his mother, he did deceive her about his older sister’s romance and eventual secret marriage to a Christian from across the street.

While the groom’s Christian family accepted this marriage, Harry’s family did not. This resulted in Shivah (mourning the dead) in his home where all of the members of Harry’s family sat for seven days in their stocking feet and mourned the death of this daughter.

After many months of having her attempts at reconciliation snubbed by her family, Harry’s married sister was finally able to bring them all together again with the birth of a child and the rebirth, so to speak, of this married daughter.

The Christian parents of the man who married this sister then organized a block party for Christians and Jews to celebrate this new baby. With lots of beer and other drinks, this party was a huge success, and it once again brought the two sides of the street together in celebration.

Shortly after this party, Harry, his mother, father and siblings, except for the married sister, finally were able to come to the United States in 1922, settling first in Chicago and then eventually in New York.

Harry died in 2011, which gave him the opportunity to enjoy the accolades and success of this book and relive his early childhood in England. It also gave him the time to write a sequel entitled “The Dream,” which begins on the ship taking all of them from England and takes the reader through their early years in Chicago.

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