Street bat­tles re­called from 90 years ago

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -


THEY DO say that long-term mem­ory is stronger than short-term mem­ory. But you can’t help won­der­ing whether it is pos­si­ble for a man of 97 to have to­tal re­call about his early child­hood, as in Harry Bern­stein’s first mem­oir, or even his ado­les­cence, re­mem­bered in his sec­ond.

Ninety-three years ago, Bern­stein was liv­ing in a Lan­cashire mill town, the youngest mem­ber of an Or­tho­dox Jewish fam­ily of five chil­dren. Liv­ing in the shad­ows of the First World War, his long-suf­fer­ing Pol­ish mother was mar- ried to a dis­so­lute who squan­dered most of his mea­gre earn­ings on drink. But The In­vis­i­ble Wall is not about poverty (though it was grind­ing) or hope (though it was abid­ing) but about the cul­ture clash be­tween those who lived on Harry’s side of the street, the Jews, and those who lived op­po­site, the Chris­tians.

Each viewed the other with a great deal more sus­pi­cion than af­fec­tion. But, as Bern­stein points out, com­pared to the pogroms from which his par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion fled, the odd jibe and the oc­ca­sional punch on the way home from school came al­most as a re­lief.

There were times when the “in­vis­i­ble wall” was breached. When a Jewish fam­ily needed a “goy” to light fires on Shab­bat, or when Harry’s sis­ter Lily fell in se­cret love with Arthur who lived on the other side. Or when war broke out and Chris­tians flocked across the street to the Jews — and vice versa — when news reached them all that a son had been killed in action.

But it is the be­hav­iour of those with- in Bern­stein’s fam­ily that pro­vides the drama, nowhere more so than when Lily’s chance to go to gram­mar school was bru­tally cur­tailed by her fa­ther, a mean and mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure brood­ing on the fringes of the fam­ily both in Eng­land and in Amer­ica — the lo­ca­tion of Bern­stein’s fol­low-up, The Dream.

This is an in­ter­est­ing ac­count of a fam­ily cop­ing with the de­mands of im­mi­gra­tion, but it lacks the struc­ture, orig­i­nal­ity and ten­sion pro­vided by the in­vis­i­ble wall in the first.

Still, the im­agery con­jured by Bern­stein’s straight­for­ward prose in both books is al­ways con­vinc­ing — the clat­ter­ing of clogs on cobbles; the first, awestruck im­pres­sions of the metropo­lis of Chicago; and the shock­ing truth about how his Pol­ish-born Amer­i­can grand­fa­ther made a liv­ing. The Dream will work best as a com­pan­ion piece to the The In­vis­i­ble Wall. No doubt the pub­lish­ers are con­sid­er­ing a dou­ble vol­ume edi­tion.

John Nathan is the JC’s the­atre critic

Harry Bern­stein: a long look back

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