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The Invisible Wall: A Love Story that Broke Barriers
By Harry Bernstein
320 pages; $22.95
After the death of his wife, Harry Bernstein, then 93 (and now 96), sat down to write a memoir of his childhood in a poverty-stricken Lancashire mill town. But his is more than a personal story. It sums up a particular aspect of the invisible wall between Jews and gentiles in Britain and elsewhere, whether they be working class or professionals.
Bernstein emigrated with his family to the United States in 1919, but his account of how his family struggled with poverty and anti-Semitism ("You all killed Christ, didden you?") is as fresh as if it was written at the time.
The Bernsteins lived in a row of Jewish terrace houses on one side of a cobbled street; the beytzkes, the goyim, lived on the other side.
Between them was the invisible wall, crossed only during World War I when a girl on a bike, whistling cheerfully, delivered War Office telegrams announcing the death of both Christians and Jews on the Western Front. Some of the survivors returned home without limbs.
The Jews were all observant, and their one contact with the gentiles was a woman given a penny each time she came to stoke the cooking stove on Shabbat.
Bernstein's mother, married to a brutal Jewish tailor who drank most of his wages, hand-washed and mended her five children's clothing every evening, for none had a change of clothes. When Harry ('arry) was ready to begin school, his mother could not find the money for a pair of shoes and was forced to buy him a pair of wooden clogs instead. She took him to a better school than the one attended by her other children, but the headmaster refused to enroll him because of the clogs.
Harry's eldest sister Lily was both pretty and an excellent student who won a scholarship to a grammar school where she could train as a teacher. But her father forcibly put her into the sweatshop.
The first inkling of a romance between Lily and Arthur, a boy from across the street, was when Harry was employed as a runner between them.
Arthur survived the Western Front and when he and Lily were married, the Bernsteins sat shiva. Needless to say, the marriage was unwelcome on both sides of the street, but eventually made some cracks in the wall.
Bernstein tells his story in a series of set pieces. But what particularly touched me was the use of the word beytzke, or batesky, as Bernstein transliterates it. A bates, Bernstein tells us, was a peculiarly Lancashire word for a goy.
My mother, born in Liverpool, was a contemporary of Bernstein's and emigrated to Australia at the time Bernstein left with his family for America. I grew up among Yiddish speakers, but she was the only person I ever heard use the word beytzkes. All other Melbourne Jews spoke of yoks.
My only Yiddish dictionary has gone walkabout, but while writing this review it suddenly occurred to me that the Yiddish beytz means bad or even evil, which is the way bullied and persecuted Jews may have characterized the gentiles. Can any reader enlighten me further as to the origin of beytz or bates?