by Harry Bernstein
My enjoyment rating: 4 of 5 stars
Book source: Personal copy
You are never too old to tell your story.
And at the age of 96, Harry Bernstein did just that.
Growing up in Manchester, England on the eve of World War I, Harry details in stunning prose the “invisible wall” that divides his neighborhood – that of Christians on one side and Jews on the other. His father a drunk, and his mother providing for 5 children (eventually 6), Harry’s childhood was filled with poverty, depravity, and neglect, but also a genuine amount of love.
More often than not, neither side of the street would have anything to do with one another. On the occasion of the Jewish Sabbath, a “goy” (or Christian neighbor) would cross the street to perform the necessary duties (light a fire, put a pot on to boil), in order for the Jews to keep strict Sabbath day observance. But that was the extent, for the most part, of their interactions.
The seriousness of this divide was made evident when a Jewish neighbor, Sarah, fell in love with a Christian, Freddy. When the romance was discovered, “shivah,” or mourning of the dead, was performed by Sarah’s family, and she was exiled to Australia.
It is miraculous that Mr. Bernstein can recall in such vivid detail the scenes from his early childhood. He is exact when remembering his home, his mother, the dialogue between his mother and siblings, the beatings he took from the bullies on the street. His portrait of his father is menacing…and we learn that after his mother died, Harry never saw him again.
Ultimately, this was the story of Harry’s sister Lily, and her own romance with Arthur (a Christian), that grabs hold of your heart and won’t let you go. Determined to break with religion, tradition, and risk all that they have, including their lives, for love, Arthur and Lily forge their own way in this very structured society. Harry’s portrayal of how their love bridges the divide is truly magnificent.
Sadly, Mr. Bernstein died two weeks ago at the age of 101.
He published two other works, The Dream, which chronicles his life once he emigrated to America, and The Golden Willow, about his life with his wife of 67 years, Ruby.
I was touched by this story.
But even more so by Mr. Bernstein, that even at the age of 96, you can still grab hold of your dreams.