Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers

Book: The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers
Author: Harry Bernstein
Edition: eBook from Barnes and Noble
Read: September 11, 2014
239 pages
Rated: 3 1/2 out of 5

This is an autobiographical story of Harry Bernstein's childhood and family. He tells of growing up in a Protestant Northern England slum as a Jew. He talks about the harassment and the comradery of a divided neighborhood-Christian and Jew. Throughout the book, an invisible wall lurks-Christians on one side of the street and Jews on the other, barely interacting. He talks about his own heritage's boundaries which make it easy to be hated, and easy to be isolated. Also he talks about the event which brought the community together, briefly.

Even though there seemed to be separation between Jews and Christian, there was some interaction between the two groups. Such as on Friday nights or Saturdays when the Jews could not light their cooking fires, they used a Christian to start their fires. Or they crossed the wall to go teach others shops.  Also when Harry was running an errand, he talked to two Christian neighbors who seemed to not mind his Jewishness.

Bernstein starts the book off with that Jews and Christians living in the same ghetto. But there was an invisible wall separating them, down the middle of the street.(7)  Later, he talks about the war almost destroying that wall (130). The telegram lady would come with her notices of death and injury. All the neighborhood would come together to co-commiserate. When the war ended, the wall returned. Later on, Lily's baby, half-Jew, half-Christian came, breaking down the barrier when the street celebrated life rather than mourned death.(230) But at the end of the book, he wonders was it ever really torn down, but maybe just breeched for short times.

Harry's father was an alcoholic and an abusive father/husband. From Bernstein's book you gain insight into the hell which such a person inflicts on their family. How insecure it makes all feel, even though it maybe only verbal threats. In Harry's case, it was both verbal and physical, particularly towards Harry's mother.  The father was this way from childhood. Harry's father 's family had moved away from him when he was young, he terrorized them so. Even though they moved from Poland to England, Harry's father searched for them and found them, terrorizing them even more. Apparently his abused was not alcohol induced, but something he was born with. Why would someone grow up that way? 

The Bernstein children had dreams of what they wanted-such as a parlor like another family they had a room, but nothing to make it livable. As these dreams got squashed, they grew resentful. His sister, Lily, had the dream of furthering education, going so far as getting full scholarship. But this two was dashed by the father who seemed to enjoy only killing hopes and dreams. Was some of the things which came up in the book because of these hopes were killed? Do you find ways to live your dreams in other ways, which causes more hurt?

In chapter three, there is an instance where a Christian, Arthur, saves the lives of the five children of the Bernstein family from other non-Jewish kids. The daughter, Lily, is smitten by Arthur. The part which causes me to ponder is while the mother is grateful to Arthur, she does not want Lily to associate with him because of being a Christian. The question is why? Is it because the name Christian is so reprehensible to her? Because she feels a need for total isolation away from non-Jewish influences? Fear of the unknown? I am at a loss at why, particularly since he saved her children. But maybe in her culture, the religon is more important than her children. Later on, a baby helps her to show love to her daughter , but only through a great personal turmoil. What about a person;s religon is more important than a relationship?

A boarder comes to live with the family. Bernstein makes the comment, thanks to this man who brought new life into our house. Bernstein's description of the household before Larry is a house of fear, lacking joy, the house of the walking dead.  Larry is a guy who has a lot of things wrong with him. But the one thing he has is the ability to bring joy to others, including the father of the household. He sings, he engages, he understands, he does. How is it that simple joys can bring change this this? Why was it not there before? The reason was principally the father. How sad that what formed him is being 

In contrast to the father, the mother holds the family together. She is the one who stays up late at night to mend clothes. She is the one  feeds the children. She is the one who tends to their education, both secular and religious. Later Bernstein realizes this. 

For the most part, Bernstein does not address philosophy or beliefs. He is Jewish, but it is an identity, not a belief. But he recounts one incident where the rabbi's son is to give the Passover sermon. He does it in the form of the four questions said at Passover. But he introduces a fifth question, which is not answered: why does God allow so much suffering in our world? He does not provide an answer. But just raising the question, leads me to think Berstein does not approve of his Jewish God.

Another place where Bernstein inserts his personal values is in a letter to his sister Lily from Arthur, a goy who eventually marries Lily. In the letter, Arthur describes scenes from the front in World War I. He says there is no heroism... only dirt and mud and cold and men crying like babies. He says there is no glory in worry and doubts if he could go on fighting. The only reason to continue to fight is that this is the war to end all wars. Such optimism. Given that there was even a much greater war fought within three decades, would he have thought this war worth it? I think that is Bernstein's point. War does not solve war. Only by changing the circumstances of war can you reduce the possibility of war. We will always have greed, or the need for survival with us-my thoughts, not Bernstein's.

After the war, Arthur wants to marry Lily. From Arthur's view, he fought in World War I and that prejudice should have ended with it. But Lily understands there is deep seated divisions which even war does not settle. Marriage would mean the end of her families love for her. She would be a dead person. Arthur thinks that when capitalism ends, so will the wall between Christian and Jew. But we know that this thinking was not correct. It is not economics which separates us from each other, but our upbringing, our own prejudices, our own weaknesses and blindness, ourselves.

There was so little beauty in her life, and so little hope, that even a bouquet of buttercups and daiseys gave her enormous pleasure and put her in a gay mood. (189) this sentence is from when Harry gave her a bouquet. It just struck me that to bring joy to someone does not require you to have some elaborate gift, but a simplicity of the heart in a gift.

Death is darkness.(209) the description Berstein gives is that all is silent, all is dark during the time of mourning. No comfort is allowed to be given; no comfort is allowed to be taken. Darkness mimics death where all is darkness. In this case it is when a Jewish girl marries a Christian man. The Jewish family considers her dead. 

But this acting like the daughter is dead has another reaction. Those living across the street take this as a sign of rejection of them as people, by the Jews. A bit of prejudice and lack of communications goes a long ways to divide people from their neighbors. Only one Christian person crosses the invisible wall to help out with the Friday fire.

Berstein ends the book with a re-enactment of why you cannot go back home. After about 30years away, he returns back to England and to his old town. But the town has changed. The tailors shop has been bombed during World War II; while the streets are still there, the horse drawn carriages are gone, replaced by cars. His street is deserted, scheduled to be demolished for public housing.but one of the residences is still there, but only for a few days. The conversation is of where has everybody gone. Berstein is not necessarily sadden to find the place gone, but wonders if the invisible wall still remains.

This is not a book of big pronouncements of living together, but more of one man's reminisces of living closely together with hatred. The question in my mind is this one man's experience worth reading? My response is that it is for understanding, but not for deep insight.

Notes from my book group:
  • A lot of the discussion was based upon the racist family background-separation between the Jews and the rest of the world.
    • Gary's comment: Was this because of what happened in Ezra's time? One of the Church's reaction to the world is to withdraw and be separate. Is this the outcome?
  • In many ways, bad behavior gets the attention. So bad behavior gets perpetuated.
  • There is prejudice on both sides.
  • Is what the book protrayed, still present in today's world? How much is there prejudice against Jews?
    • Gary's note: When i was growing up, a good friend noted at our 10th high school reunion that I was one of the few people who did not mock him because of his Jewishness. So I suspect there still is an undercurrent, like there is in much of our society when someone is different than ourselves.

Publisher's questions from Arkansas Library
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?

New Words:
  • Middens (11): an old dump for domestic waste which may consist of animal bone, human excrement, botanical material, vermin, shells, sherds, lithics (especially debitage), and other artifacts and ecofacts associated with past human occupation
  • Goys-fire (17):  Yiddish-It is regularly used by Jews to refer to any and all peoples of faiths other than Judaism. The word is also used to pejoratively describe those not of Jewish descent.
  • Batesemas, batesy, bates (26): interesting, about have of the references in Google refers back to this book.
  • Ragamuffins (26): A dirty, shabbily-clothed child; an urchin.
  • Clogs (27): a type of shoe; a type of footwear made in part or completely from wood.
  • Slattern (30): a dirty, untidy woman
  • Dreeing (35): endure (something burdensome or painful).
  • Kop (35): 
  • Shabbos (39): the Jewish day of rest and seventh day of the week, on which religious Jews remember the Biblical creation of the heavens and the earth in six days and the Exodus of the Hebrews, and look forward to a future Messianic Age. Shabbat observance entails refraining from work activities, often with great rigor, and engaging in restful activities to honor the day.
  • Alacrity (40): brisk and cheerful readiness.
  • Chedar (63): 
  • Siddurim (64): a Jewish prayer book, containing a set order of daily prayers.
  • Shul (68): Yiddish, school, synagogue, from Middle High German schuol school
  • Shaigets (74): a male goy married to a Jewish woman
  • Emmos (75): 
  • Shivah (78): the week-long mourning period in Judaism for first-degree relatives: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, and spouse. The ritual is referred to as "sitting shiva."
  • Inveigled (93): persuade (someone) to do something by means of deception or flattery
  • Talith (93):  tallit-a Jewish prayer shawl
  • Chomish (99): the god of the Moabites  (another similar spelt word is the fifith part)
  • Rossellini (103): 
  • Chometz (103):  leavened foods that are forbidden on the Jewish holiday of Passover
  • Bris 160): or brit mailah:  a Jewish religious male circumcision ceremony performed by a mohel on the eighth day of a male infant's life

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: It was one of those rareSummer 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 balmy.
  • Last Line: Then there was silence and my eyes would close and I was asleep.
  •  But there are few rules or unwritten laws that are not broken when circumstances demand, and few distances too great to be traveled. Pg 8


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