by Jerry Waxler
I am reading the Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein. The reason I heard about this book and decided to read it was because of the buzz that it generated when Bernstein, now 96 years old, wrote this, his first published book when he was 93. That’s a story in itself, and inspiring to anyone who thinks it’s too late. That gives me 36 more years of productive writing ahead of me!! If I get started now, I still have the full span of a career ahead of me. And by the way, Bernstein has recently sold his second book.
So what can I share about memoirs by reading this book? First of all, I ask what makes this memoir tick? It combines two types of memoir: a coming of age story –Harry is just starting school, around 6 years old, and he shares his observations from that tiny perspective as he tries to make sense of the world. And it’s an immigration story. Both of his parents came from the old country, Poland, and moved to England. They are living on a block, an enclave, a sort of ghetto with other Polish Jews on one side of the street. And on the other side of the street are non-Jews. The Invisible Wall of the title is the wall of animosity and suspicion that runs down the center of the street and separates Jew from non-Jew.
When I read the synopsis, about growing up in England in the beginning of the century, and in particular growing up in the cultural tension of this street, I wanted to read more. For some reason which I find fascinating, even though my own grandparents came from Russia, I emotionally feel connected to England as the mother country. I guess it’s all that English literature, King Arthur, Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens. (Did those stories help me define my roots, more even than my own grandparents?) So I’m drawn to read this story to learn more about another generation of Jews being indoctrinated in the culture of the mother country.
Within the book, I find an interesting surprise. The author shows me both sides of the wall. Of course I see the fear of the children, as they walk to school terrified that they will be beat up by anti-semitic bullies. That’s the side of the wall one expects in a book that contains anti-semitism. But inside the home, I get to see the other side. Like Maria in West Side Story, when a girl from the Jewish side is drawn to a boy on the non-Jewish side, Bernstein shows us his mother’s graphic gut-wrenching fear.
I feel the emotions of the girls, reaching out to boys in the dominant culture with love. And the loathing from the parents, trying to maintain their old culture. It’s a beautiful melting pot story. Like the parents in West Side Story who beg their daughter to “stick with your own kind” Bernstein’s people desperately try to keep the children on the “right” side of the invisible wall. And there are other powerful emotions I identify with in this story. I am terrified and disgusted when I hear Harry’s father come into the house, abusive and drunk. I am anxious and hopeful when his mother figures out a way to make some money on her own.
So here is the magic of how the memoir draws in a reader. I see the world from the protagonist’s eyes. I want him to survive. I want his pain to be resolved. And he lets me get inside these emotions by showing them openly. It’s hard to write so boldly about one’s own raw emotions. I know it how hard it is for me. I suspect that Bernstein’s many decades gave him enough distance from the intensity, so he was able to see the emotions more clearly. So there’s another lesson I can take away from reading this book. Not only do I still have time. But as I grow older, my perspective of my life grows more interesting and deeper.
For my essay about Harry Bernstein’s second memoir, The Dream, click here.