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.
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.
The author paints a picture of a time and place where poverty, war, and antisemitism made life in his neighborhood very difficult. And yet, there were enough happy memories to make him want to return there years later for a last visit. Very beautifully written.
Best book ever!
This is one of the best books I've ever read! One of the very few books I literally could not put down. You won't believe it's a memoir! It reads like fiction. It definitely breaks the boring memoir stereotype. I really felt for the characters and felt like I was there. Seriously, just stop reading reviews already and read this book!