Over the course of a year, I collect books I should read and books I
want to read, but — should have/would have/could have — many I never
get around to reading.
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
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
Copyright 2008 Tommywood