Thursday, February 15, 2007

UK Jewish Memories

Harry Bernstein, I learned, grew up in a Lancashire street with Jews on one side and Christians on the other. Now, at the age of 96, he has written a memoir recalling the tensions that the split created.

Here's a review, interspliced with my comments.

Harry Bernstein knows all about walls. You might say he was a connoisseur of forced separation, of the erection of barriers to keep people apart. But the walls he knows so well are not physical, built of sand and stone like the Moroccan Wall in the Western Sahara or out of great concrete blocks like those going up between Israel and the Palestinian territories [they had to get that in - and wrong, too] or along the American border with Mexico. Bernstein is an expert on the walls of the mind. He spent his childhood at the time of the first world war living in the shadow of just such a wall.

...The wall that ran down East Street was religion: Jews lived in one row of houses, Christians in the other. Bernstein lived on the Jewish side, in a family that like most there had fled the pogroms in Poland and Russia. He has written a memoir of his childhood growing up on the street, The Invisible Wall, in which he recalls the personal tragedies that such segregation brings.

...His memories certainly come very much alive in the book. His side of the street was a miniature ghetto, though it lacked the brutality of the fully formed versions of continental Europe. Sometimes the tenants at the Christian sweet shop on the other side would mutter "bloody little Jews" when he walked in, and when he started going to school he was in perpetual fear of being ganged up on by older lads with their war cry: "Who killed Jesus?"

But for the most part the hostility was uttered sotto voce - and it cut both ways. "We were taught that when we passed a church we were to spit at it. There was as much bigotry on the Jewish side as Christian, maybe more." [but we Jews never did that while the goyim were watching because we knew it was wrong] The Jews had a word to describe the rougher Christian elements - betsemas - the etymology of which Bernstein has never managed to divine.

...On Friday and Saturday nights the Jewish families would have to call on their Christian neighbours across the way to light their fires for them - in return for some small change - as they were forbidden to do so themselves on the Sabbath. Bernstein's "fire goyah", as they called her, was Mrs Green, a toothless woman who used to shoot anti-semitic remarks at them when she was drunk but was otherwise accommodating.

Just occasionally the taboo against collaboration was broken, with extreme consequences. Bernstein unwittingly helped one such catastrophe to unfold, by carrying love letters in a bottle between a Jewish girl on his side of the street and a teenage Christian boy. When the liaison was discovered, the girl was severely beaten by her father and promptly dispatched for ever to Australia. [where there were probably many more goyim]

Bernstein's sister Lilly suffered a barely less dramatic fate when she fell in love with a Christian boy over the road. When her mother learned the truth, she sat shiveh for Lilly - a seven-day ceremony of mourning for her "dead" daughter.

It turned out to be emotion, not poverty, that acted as the great leveller. The day a telegram arrived saying that the son of a Jewish family had been killed in the trenches of France, the whole street, Christians included, turned out to console his wailing mother.

...He quickly cast off his Jewish faith on arrival in America and at the age of 13 refused to have a bar mitzvah. "What it has done for me is to make me feel that religion is the worst evil that has been inflicted on the human race. Until religion diminishes its grip on people's minds, there will never be real peace."

He no longer has a Lancashire accent; when he arrived in Chicago he was put in an English class for foreigners...

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