352 pages, 7.94 × 5.09 × 0.76 in
February 12, 2008
Random House Publishing Group
The following ISBNs are associated with this title:
ISBN - 10: 0345496108
ISBN - 13: 9780345496102
About the Book
A wonderfully charming memoir written when the author was 93, "The Invisible Wall" vibrantly brings to life an all-but-forgotten time and place. Bernstein offers a moving tale of working-class life, and of the boundaries that can be overcome by love.
Read from the Book
Chapter OneIt was one of those rare summer evenings when it did not rain, and the smoke cleared from the atmosphere, leaving the sky a deep blue color, and the air soft and fresh and balmy. It was the kind of evening when people brought their stiff-backed wooden kitchen chairs out to the front to sit and smoke, and perhaps listen to the Forshaws’ gramophone. They were the only people on our street who had one, and they left their door open so that everyone could hear. In the meantime, the sun would sink, a huge red ball, behind the square brick tower of the India Mill. After it disappeared, there would be fiery streaks in the sky, and these would fade gradually as the sky became very pale, and twilight would fall gently, and you would see the glow of pipes or cigarettes along both sides of the street.We had finished our tea, and my two sisters had quickly disappeared before my mother could get them to clear the table and wash up. My two brothers were about to do the same. Having gulped down the last of their tea, and still chewing on their bread and butter, they were halfway out the door to join their friends in the street when my mother stopped them.“Take ’arry with you,” she said.They stared at her in astonishment, not believing what they had heard. Well, I too was surprised.But my surprise was a pleasant one. Until now I had been the baby of the family, too young to go out and play with them, though I’d always wanted to and had watched them go with silent yearning. Now sud
From the Publisher
“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.
A wonderfully charming memoir written when the author was ninety-three, The Invisible Wall 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.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Ninety-six-year-old Harry Bernstein emigrated to the United States with his family after World War I. He has written all his life but started writing The Invisible Wall only after the death of his wife, Ruby. He has been published in “My Turn” in Newsweek. Bernstein lives in Brick, New Jersey, where he is working on another book.
From the Hardcover edition.
“Harry Bernstein returns home and, magically, takes us with him. With its dancing prose and captivating descriptions of neighborhood life, we experience with the child Harry all the wonder, thrill, and heartbreak of being a working-class kid learning to navigate the balkanized world of Christians and Jews within a single English mill town. Bernstein gives us a people’s history, a street-level perspective on a world that might otherwise have been lost, with crucial lessons that will endure throughout time.”
–Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of All Souls
“[An] affecting debut memoir . . . When major world events touch the poverty-stricken block, the individual coming-of-age story is intensified without being trivialized, and the conversational account takes on the heft of a historical novel with stirring success.”
–Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
From the Hardcover edition.
1. How would you describe The Invisible Wall? A social history exposing religious prejudice? A story of star-crossed lovers? A young boy’s coming of age?
2. Harry’s sister Rose dreams of one day having a parlor and a piano; why does she consider her mother’s faded fruit shop to be a betrayal?
3. If you were in young Harry’s position, would you have kept Lily’s love affair a secret? What was at stake for Harry in maintaining his silence?
4. Despite all that divides them, there is a level of everyday mutual dependence linking the Jews and Christians of Bernstein’s street– gaps in the invisible wall, so to speak. What examples of this mutual dependence can you think of, and do they work to dismantle the wall or to reinforce it?
5. Harry’s mother is a remarkable woman. Her selﬂess acts sustain the impoverished family, and yet she disowns her daughter for marrying a Christian boy. Discuss this seeming contradiction in her character, and how she ultimately reconciles it within her own heart.
6. In the accompanying interview, Harry Bernstein states that “wars always bring people face-to-face with reality, causing false barriers to disappear.” Do you agree or disagree?
7. By encouraging Lily to improve herself through education, is her mother sowing the seeds that ultimately lead to Lily’s dissatisfaction with the boundaries of Judaism and her involvement with her Christian neighbor, Arthur?
8. Why do you think Lily’s father prevents her from going to the grammar school after she’s won the scholarship?
9. What does America represent to the Bernstein family?
10. Fatherhood and forgiveness are important themes in Bernstein’s story. Do you think Bernstein has forgiven his father? Do you think his father deserves to be forgiven? On the other hand, what do you think of the rabbi’s son, Max? Does he betray his father and his faith by going to Russia to ﬁght in the revolution?
11. Have you ever experienced living in a divided community, like the street on which Harry lived as a child? Reﬂect on the religious, class, or racial separations you may encounter in today’s society, both outwardly and self-imposed.
12. Harry Bernstein published his ﬁrst memoir in his nineties; what are your own dreams, and how does Bernstein’s story inspire you to reach for them?