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The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers (2007)

The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers (2007)
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4.05 of 5 Votes: 5
ISBN
0345495802 (ISBN13: 9780345495808)
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English
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ballantine books
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The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That...
The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers (2007)

About book: Bernstein was 93 years old when he wrote this memoir, (his first book) of his childhood in an English mill town. For those readers who require that their books be firmly grounded in time and place, The Invisible Wall will be a delight. Little Harry describes the segregated working class neighborhood he grew up in—Christians on one side of the narrow cobble-stone street, Jews on the other—with the kind of detailed observation that comes naturally to children, but is generally lost as one grows older. Bernstein is also that most rare of male memoirists: one who actually notices and describes the smallest of interpersonal interactions, a glance, a lifted eyebrow, that bring a scene to life and let us see exactly what the people within the scene are thinking.There are moments, however, when Bernstein's writing can be frustratingly similar to typical male memoirs, such as when a young man from the neighborhood kills himself in front of young Harry, and we move from that directly to a new chapter on a new topic with no further mention of how Harry or the neighborhood was affected. He is, in general, much more skillful at describing the feelings and experiences he observes in others than in himself, but he is so good at describing everyone else that I consider this a tolerable limitation.The Invisible Wall also spares us that most annoying of memoir flaws; a collection of memories, divided by chapter, connected only in the most vague and abstract way, and reading like a series of random musings rather than as a cohesive narrative. Bernstein keeps the reader turning the pages by building his memoir around the events that took place between his sister Lily and the Christian boy from across the street whom she was both in love with and forbidden to speak to, while at the same time telling us the unbeatable story (so common in Gustine-nominated memoirs) of a mother desperately trying to feed and clothe her six children, while her violent husband spends everything he makes on drinking and gambling.EXCERPT:"Lily was obviously embarrassed. 'Do you like it?' she said, meaning her dress.'I love it,' my mother said, and there was delight in her voice, and something made her turn toward my father then and ask, 'What do you think of your daughter today? Doesn't she look lovely? Aren't you proud of her?'They were questions she would never have asked before. Never would she have dared draw him into the family picutre. But her enthusiasm was so great she could not help it. And he in turn—we all look at him to see his reaction, a bit amazed ourselves at our mother's daring—he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and swung around in his chair, and said, without looking at Lily, 'Where's she going? To a ball?''No, she's going to the grammar school for an interview. You know she passed the exam. She came out at the top of the list.' He must have known all this. It would have been impossible for him not to have known with all the excitment her victory had created on the street. Surely it had been talked about in the tailoring shop, too, as everwhere else. Surely he must have heard, and wasn't it altogether possible that one of the bolder men had ventured to break through his sullen barrier and mention it to him?'Yes, it's very likely that he knew, and that this could have explained his presence among us this morning. But he was feigning ignorance. 'She's going to the grammar school? Then she's all through with St. Peter's?''Yes,' my mother said and for the first time a bit of uncertainty came into her voice.'Then,' my father said, crossing one leg over the other, 'Her school days are over. She doesn't need any grammar school.'A stunned look came over my mother's face. Over Lily's too. Over all our faces. There was a brief silence, then my mother burst out, 'What are you saying? Do you realize the honor she's won, top of the list, the best of all of them, and now a chance to go to the grammar school without any cost, and to become a teacher?'He cleared his throat. It was a habit of his that usually preceded an outburst, and we all tensed and drew together for comfort. 'It's time she started earning a living, never mind becoming a teacher. I was earning a living when I was five years old. They sent me out to work in a slaughterhouse. I cleaned up the blood and entrails of the animals and the shit and the hair and the eyes that rolled out of the heads.' His voice was rising and beginning to choke with rage. 'Five years old, I was. Did I have an education? Did I go to school? She's been going all her life. She's twelve years old. Girls younger than her are working already and making money. It's time she started helping out in this house.''But she's got this chance. It's her once big chance. She'll never have it again.'My mother was pleading, even begging, but it was no use. he got up suddenly from the table, pushing the chair away from himself with that familiar scraping sound, and reaching out a hand to Lily, said, 'Come on. Let's go. I'll give you a new kind of education.'"

“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 hold 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.
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Reviews
Margaret Crampton
This is a brilliant book written when the author was in his nineties and writtenAs well through the eyes of child. The detail and sense of place and understanding of complex relationships is remarkable. That he could remember his youth and childhood in such detail to paint such a vivid picture of bygone times of the backstreets of Manchester, the poverty, harshness anti Semitism, cruelty and triumph of love and humanity agains such odds is outstanding. This is one of the best books I have read this year and it will stay with me for a long time. I lived near Manchester inThe sixties and their were still remnants of the city Harry knew, though much destroyed to build high rise apartments with the consequent loss of community that the back toBack houses enjoyed.
BarbaraNathalie
Although I am not Jewish, I have been reading books about them since I was eight years old. I have read many historical pieces and memoirs dealing with the holocaust. When I read The Invisible Wall in 2007, I was introduced to another area where differences among people cause pain, heartache, and disadvantage in the world. In a poor part of England, it is sad that people don't find ways to help each overcome the "stuff" in their environment to make a better life for everyone.However, that is the way of the world. I've read that 2000 years ago, people tried to follow the teachings of a wise man who taught them to love one another. He didn't say love anyone who believes or follows me. He said love your neighbor as yourself. Yet in Harry Berstein's book as in many, many other stories of division, too many people all over the world chastise one another for their beliefs or for what their forefathers and foremothers believed. It is almost impossible to imagine a world where people are respected for being alive and trying to do positive things in their lives.In many ways, in some parts of the world, people are making steps so that the young, the disenfrachised, the uneducated can have a chance in a better world. As I read this book, I thought about things that I do or have done that isolates other people. One reviewer mentioned that Harry may not remember all the details, that he may have embellished his story because it was so long ago. Even if something happened a week ago, it is interpreted as we feel it. I think Mr. Berstein definitely remembered how he felt, and that is what most of us remember when we tell a story from our lives. A beautifully written story of remembrance.
Becky
I think I read that someone called this book a sweet memoir; it is not that. It also does not seem to be "a love story that broke barriers" as we are only just barely acquainted with the love story. What it is is a story of poverty, abuse, and a time and place where religious divisions took place. The good or interesting parts of the book included details about Jewish life that I didn't know about, like having a fire goy, the rather sweet relationship between Harry and his mother, and that a portion of the book took place during WWI (which I have considered as a topic for book club since the war started 100 years ago this year). The parts of the book I didnt enjoy were many: the family relationships were horrible; the father was a terrifying drunk, who was likely mentally ill, his back story was awful, Lily and Rose were terrible to their mother, and the mother was trapped in this world of poverty, abuse and religious belief/expectation. It was downright depressing and very difficult to keep reading at many points.Also, I do see a parallel in how Jews would sit Shiva for their children who married a goy and current issues parents have when their children live lifestyles that conflict with their religious beliefs. It is like Arthur said in the book: we are not so different from one another.
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