“Our street was smaller than most. It had just one long row of houses on one side, and two smaller rows of equal combined length on the other, intersected by another street called Brook Street. It sloped slightly on a hill that began far up in the better section of town. It was a quiet, little street, hardly noticeable among all the other larger streets, but what distinguished it from all the others was the fact that we lived on one side, and they lived on the other. We were the Jews and they were the Christians.”
Harry Bernstein’s memoir of his childhood in early nineteenth century Manchester, England is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, Bernstein penned this work when he was ninety-six. It was his first published book, although he emphasizes that he was writing nearly all his life. Next, it is gripping not only for it’s tales of hardship growing up in a poor household with an abusive alcoholic father, but for it’s examination of the relationship between the Jews and the Catholics on his block, and the effect modernization had on their interactions. This makes it an important work, because it not only allows us to take a look at historical events and their impact on the family, but it also shows us the subtle nuances of societal values, and their impact in a world that is changing.
I don’t usually put spoilers in my reviews, but I think some discussion is merited here. If you don’t want to know what happens in the book, read no further, but know that I highly recommend you read “The Invisible Wall.”
Harry’s family is of the Jewish faith, albeit that is strictly from his mother’s attempts to keep the household in the traditions of her ancestors. There are no relatives to help reinforce their faith, nor does their father set an example. The father’s presence is rarely felt. He works, goes to the pub to drink, and sometimes sleeps at home. He interacts with his family very little. Being poor and Jewish, the kids are subjected to every type of humiliation imaginable. In spite of their mother’s attempts, there is little for them to be proud of. So, it is not surprising that daughter Lily, feels little allegiance to her Jewish heritage. The widespread promotion of socialism during this era holds much appeal to a poor, oppressed working class – and it’s argument that religion is a cause of the oppression. As the story unfolds, Lily falls in love with a Christian boy, Arthur, and the two run off to marry against the wishes of their families. The Bernstein’s disown their daughter – sitting Shiva for her as if she were dead. Arthur’s family treats them more kindly, but in the neighborhood, tempers flare.
In the afterword, Bernstein says that today interfaith marriages or more common, and he believes that is good. I assume he means that interfaith marriages allow for peoples of different faiths to break down that invisible wall, and treat each other with respect. I don’t personally agree with Bernstein’s take on this, nor his intimation that religion causes the problem. However, the memoir provides an excellent opportunity to discuss this topic further. My favorite person in the memoir was the young rabbi, who appeared to be a truly righteous person. We can ask the question: what would have happened if Lily had married the rabbi? We know from her heart condition that it would not have prevented her early death, but perhaps she would have been happier and she most certainly would have spared her family (and the neighborhood) a lot of pain. At any rate it makes for some interesting conversation.
4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2007