The Sleeper Wakes (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The Dream: A Memoir By Harry Bernstein Ballantine Books 272 pages; $24.00 Life is a dream - a cliché with a subtext of hope tinged with irony and sadness. Life is a dream - the better parts of it unexamined by many and unexplainable to most. This is Harry Bernstein's underlying message in his new memoir "The Dream." Although he has published two best-selling memoirs in his nineties, Bernstein is no late bloomer. He never suffered from the decades-long writer's block that afflicted his contemporary, Henry Roth. Now 98, Bernstein published short stories and newspaper articles throughout his life. He also wrote a novel "The Smile," published by a small press in 1981. But it is Bernstein's life story that has attracted his widest readership. His first volume of memoirs, "The Invisible Wall," published in 2006, described a childhood in the north of England that was like the English weather - dark and heavy with intermittent periods of brightness and levity. The book was a homage to Bernstein's old neighborhood in Stockport, a street divided by an invisible wall that separated Christian and Jewish neighbors until his sister Lily dared to scale it by marrying her gentile sweetheart. "The Invisible Wall" introduced readers to the author's large and hapless family, which included a brood of siblings ranging from bitter to charming. His father Yankel, who squandered the family's desperately needed income on alcohol, was a monster who is drawn one-dimensionally in both books. And there was his long-suffering mother Ada, whose lifelong dream was to immigrate to America, in the familiar role of the martyr. "The Dream" recounts the Bernstein family's sojourn in America in 1922, when Harry was 12 years old. Ada had begged Yankel's relatives in Chicago for years for assistance in getting to America. One day, out of the blue, her dream came true: The relatives sent tickets for the voyage to the United States. In Ada's fantasies the streets of America were not paved with gold, but lined with houses that had fancy appliances and indoor plumbing. Yet those dreamy images did not align with the reality that was America for the Bernsteins. They were more in line with the mangled syntax of letters from Uncle Abe, Yankel's brother in Chicago. "I have a beautiful home and a wife with electric lights and a bathtub." The "beautiful home" was a Chicago tenement. Yankel's mother, a sour woman weighted down by the jewelry she wore as she mopped the kitchen floor, was a grotesque version of the electric wife. The assortment of uncles and aunts - Yankel's brothers and sisters who had all settled in Chicago - were alternately amusing and demoralized. Uncle Abe with the beautiful home and the lit-up wife lived in a slum that made the old Northern English working-class neighborhood seem relatively comfortable to Harry by comparison. Grandpa Bernstein, Yankel's father, is "The Dream's" most intriguing and complex character. The anti-hero of the book, he was the family's financial mainstay and the mysterious American benefactor. But he earned his money by feigning blindness and begging for money near the Chicago El and the New York City subway. His deceit also earned him the loathing of the family who depended on him. When his daughter Lily, Harry's aunt, married in Grandma Bernstein's Chicago apartment, the family went to great lengths to plan the wedding for a time when their grandfather was begging in New York. But he returned home unexpectedly. Staying in character as the blind beggar, he stumbled into the house and asked to kiss the bride. Judy Bolton-Fasman writes a weekly column for The Jewish Advocate in Boston. Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.