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A Memoir

Written by Harry BernsteinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Harry Bernstein

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: September 23, 2008
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-345-51453-0
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

“Dreams played an important part in our lives in those early days in England. Our mother invented them for us to make up for all the things we lacked and to give us some hope for the future.”

During the hard and bitter years of his youth in England, Harry Bernstein’s selfless mother struggles to keep her six children fed and clothed. But she never stops dreaming of a better life in America, no matter how unlikely. Then, one miraculous day when Harry is twelve years old, steamships tickets arrive in the mail, sent by an anonymous benefactor.

Suddenly, a new life full of the promise of prosperity seems possible–and the family sets sail for America, meeting relatives in Chicago. Harry is mesmerized by the city: the cars, the skyscrapers, and the gorgeous vistas of Lake Michigan. For a time, the family gets a taste of the good life: electric lights, a bathtub, a telephone. But soon the harsh realities of the Great Depression envelop them. Skeletons in the family closet come to light, mafiosi darken their doorstep, family members are lost, and dreams are shattered.

In the face of so much loss, Harry and his mother must make a fateful decision–one that will change their lives forever. And though he has struggled for so long, there is an incredible bounty waiting for Harry in New York: his future wife, Ruby. It is their romance that will finally bring the peace and happiness that Harry’s mother always dreamed was possible.

With a compelling cast and evocative settings, Harry Bernstein’s extraordinary account of his hardscrabble youth in Depression-era Chicago and New York will grip you from the very first page. Full of humor, drama, and romance, this tale of hope and dreams coming true enthralls and enchants.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter One

Dreams played an important part in our lives in those early days in England. Our mother invented them for us to make up for all the things we lacked and to give us some hope for the future. Perhaps, also, it was for herself, to escape the miseries she had to endure, which were caused chiefly by my father, who cared little about his family.

The dreams were always there to brighten our lives a little. Only they came and went, beautiful while they lasted, but fragile and quick to vanish. They were like the soap bubbles we used to blow out of a clay pipe, sending them floating in the air above us in a gay, colorful procession, each one tantalizing but elusive. When we reached up to seize one and hold it in our hand, it burst at the slightest touch and disappeared. That is how our dreams were.

Take, for instance, the front parlor. For years and years, as long as we had lived in the house, the front room, intended to be a parlor, had remained empty, completely without furniture of any sort, simply because we could not afford to buy any. The fireplace had never been lit, and stood there cold and gray. But that wasn’t how it appeared in the dream my mother conjured up for us. It would, she promised, be warm and cozy, with red plush furniture, a luxurious divan, and big, comfortable chairs. It would have a red plush carpet on the floor too, and on top of all that there would be a piano. Yes, a piano with black and white keys that we could all play on.

Oh, it was a wonderful dream, and we used to pretend it had already happened and we were lounging on the chairs, with my sister Rose stretched out on the divan. She, more than any of us, gave vent to a vivid imagination, playing the part of a duchess and giving commands to servants in a haughty tone, with an imaginary lorgnette held to her eyes.

Then what happened? My mother must have done a lot of soul searching, and it must have cost her many a sleepless night before she reached her decision to do what Rose afterward, in her bitterness, called treachery. But what else could my poor mother have done? She was struggling desperately to keep us all alive with the little money my father doled out to her every week from his pay as a tailor, keeping the bulk of it for his drinking and gambling. She had to do something to keep us from starving, so she turned the front room into a small shop, where she sold faded fruits and vegetables, which she scavenged from underneath the stalls in the market.

A common shop, no less, to break that beautiful bubble. My sister Rose never forgave her, and indeed the bitterness and resentment lasted a lifetime, and she hardly ever talked to my mother again.

But that’s how our dreams were, and it didn’t seem as if the really big one my mother had would be any different. This was the dream of going to America. This was the one my mother would never give up. It was the panacea for all her ills, the only hope she had left of a better life.

We had relatives there–not hers; she had none of her own, having been orphaned as a child in Poland, then passed from one unwilling and often unkind household to another until she was sixteen and able to make her way to England. They were my father’s relatives, his father and mother, and about ten brothers and sisters, a large brood of which he was the oldest.

At one time they too had lived in England, and in the very same house where we now lived, that whole family crowded into a house that was scarcely big enough for ours with only six children. No wonder they fought so often among themselves; it was for space, probably, they fought, although they fought with their neighbors as well. They were a noisy, unruly lot, I am told, and my father was the worst of them all when it came to battling. In fact, he terrorized his entire family with his loud voice and ready fists; even my grandmother may have been afraid of him, and she was pretty tough herself.

As for my grandfather, he played no part in any of this. He let my grandmother rule the house, which she did with an iron fist except when it came to my father. But my grandfather managed to keep pretty much to himself. He was a roofer by trade and he was away often, mending slate roofs in distant towns and enjoying himself immensely. He would sing while he worked, songs of all nationalities, Jewish, Irish, English, Polish, often drawing a large, appreciative audience below.

In an old cardboard box where my mother used to keep an assortment of family photographs I once found a sepia photo of my father’s entire family, all of them arranged in three rows one behind the other, all dressed in their best clothes, smiling and looking like well-behaved, perfectly respectable children, far from the ruffians that they were. In the center sat the two parents, my grandmother heavy and double-chinned with a massive bosom and the glower on her face that was always there. Beside her sat my grandfather, a bearded and quite distinguished-looking gentleman holding a silver-knobbed cane between his legs, wearing a frock coat.

My father was not in that photograph, and for a very good reason: He was still in Poland.

The story, I have always felt, was somewhat apocryphal, yet older members of the family swear to its truth. At seven years of age my father had been put to work in a slaughterhouse, where he cleared up the remains of the animals that had been slaughtered for butchering. He worked twelve and sometimes more hours a day. At nine he started to drink. At ten he was defying my grandmother and a terror to all of them. He could not be handled. So one day while he was at work my grandmother gathered up the rest of her children and together with my grandfather they all fled to England, leaving my father to fend for himself. When he got home and found them gone, he almost went mad with rage. He followed them, however, and after many difficult weeks of travel finally got to England. He arrived at our street in the middle of the night, having learned from other Jewish people where they lived, and he banged on the door and demanded to be let in.

My grandmother was awakened along with the rest of the household. Peering down from her bedroom window and seeing who it was, she went to get the bucket that stood on the landing and was used as a toilet for the night. It was full to the brim. She carried it to the open window and poured it down on his head. He let out a yell of rage, but refused to give up and kept banging on the door until she was forced to let him in.

So now it was the same thing all over again, except that he was vengeful and more dangerous than ever, and my grandmother racked her brain for another means of getting rid of him. It was at this time, so the story goes, that my mother arrived in England and straight into the hands of my grandmother, who immediately saw the solution to her problem in this sweet, innocent young orphaned girl, who had no friends, no relatives, nobody in the world to turn to. It was not hard to promote the match between her and my father, so my mother, knowing nothing about him, fell into the trap of a marriage that brought her nothing but misery for the rest of her life.

That wasn’t the end of the story. No sooner had this marriage taken place than my grandmother lost no time in putting as much distance as she could between her and her oldest son. Once again she packed her things, gathered her brood together, and took them off to America, and out of the goodness of her heart she arranged with the landlord for the newly married couple to take over her house.

In view of all this it would seem utterly useless for my mother to appeal to my father’s family–my grandmother, especially–for help in coming to America. Twice they had fled from my father. What chance was there that they would spend their money to buy the steamship tickets that she always asked for and that would bring him back into their lives?

Yet, knowing this, knowing the terrible story of how they had abandoned him in Poland and the suspicion that it had been something similar when they went to America, my mother wrote to all of them just the same. By this time the children were grown up, and most of them were married and out of my grandmother’s house, so there were many letters to write.

She could not write herself, since she had never gone to school; she dictated them to one of us. Through all the years this had been going on, the job was handed down from one to the other as we grew up, until finally it came to me, and I was the one who sat down opposite her at the table in the kitchen and dipped my pen in the ink bottle and waited while she thought of what to say.

At last she began: “My dear–––,” naming whomever this was being written to. “Just a few lines to let you know we are all well and hoping to hear the same from you.”

Her letters always began this way, and eventually, after a few words of gossip about the old street–how Mrs. Cohen had had another baby, how this one across the street had been sick, how that one had lost a job–she would finally launch into her plea for the tickets. She never said the word money. She could not bear the thought of taking money from anyone. But tickets, steamship tickets, seemed better, and she would always reassure them that they would be paid for once we got to America and started working there.

They did not always answer. Sometimes weeks would go by and no letter came from America. The postman knew all about us and what we were expecting. Well, the whole street knew, but the postman especially. He was an elderly man with white hair sticking out from under his peaked hat, and he limped from a wounded leg he had got in the Boer War. He’d see me waiting at the front door while he limped his way down the street with his bag slung over one shoulder, and shake his head before he got to me and say, “Not today, lad. Better luck tomorrow.”

We did get a letter from Uncle Abe. And it was an excited, jubilant letter. He wrote telling us how well he was doing, that he had three suits of clothing hanging in his closet. In his excitement his words got twisted a little, and one sentence came out as “I have a beautiful home and a wife with electric lights and a bathtub.”

It was good for a laugh, but what about the tickets we’d asked him for? Nor did any of the others mention them. And as for my grandmother, the one letter she wrote in several years had a caustic touch. “What do you think I am,” she asked, “the Bank of England? Or do you think I took the crown jewels with me when I left England?”

With all this you’d think my mother would get discouraged and give up writing letters. But that did not happen, and I don’t know how many letters I wrote over the years, starting when I was about nine or ten. And then one morning when I was twelve, while we were all seated round the table at breakfast, there was a loud knocking at the front door.
“Go and see who it is,” my mother said, addressing no one in particular. She was too busy serving the breakfast and trying to feed the baby, who was propped up in an improvised high chair made from an ordinary chair plus a wooden box and a strap.

For a while none of us seemed to have heard her. It was probably a Jewish holiday of some sort, for we were all home and my father was still upstairs sleeping. We were busy not only eating but also reading, with our books and magazines propped up in front of us against the sugar bowl, the milk jug, the loaf of bread, or whatever other support we could find. This was a regular practice of ours at mealtimes. But the lack of response to my mother’s request could have been due to something else. Despite the absorption in our reading, it could have been the thought that the knock might be from a customer, and that would have been a good reason to ignore it. We hated customers along with the shop, still not realizing that it represented our very lifeblood.

And then my eyes lifted from the copy of Treasure Island that I was reading, and my mother’s gaze caught mine and she said, “You go, Harry.”

I got up reluctantly and went to the front door.


From the Hardcover edition.
Harry Bernstein|Author Q&A

About Harry Bernstein

Harry Bernstein - The Dream

Photo © Charles E. Burton

Ninety-nine-year-old Harry Bernstein immigrated to the United States with his family after World War I. He is the author of The Invisible Wall and The Dream and has been published in “My Turn” in Newsweek. Bernstein lives in Brick, New Jersey, where he is working on another book.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Harry Bernstein


 Random House Reader’s Circle: In the Epilogue, on page 256, you write, “I am able to look back on my life and see the whole of it spread out before me clearly in a huge panorama of events, people, places, and everything that happened to me. I am very fortunate. Age is supposed to dim memory, but mine has sharpened to where I can see things with even greater clarity than when they actually happened.” Why do you think you have been blessed with a memory that only gets sharper as the years pass?
 

Harry Bernstein:
I can not account for my good memory other than either sheer luck or that this is not unusual among many people. If they are in good health and have something to think about in the past that is worth thinking about, they will remember a great many things about the past and sometimes, time and distance give a greater perspective that grows broader as time goes on. Then there are the genes, which hand down to us some unusual and unexpected things, but in most cases it is a matter of having something that is important enough and worthy of being remembered. 

RHRC: You never went to college, despite your mother’s dream, but you are obviously a well-educated person. How did you further your own education, outside of the classroom? 

HB:
I furthered my education chiefly through reading books that contain other people’s thoughts. That is how most people achieve their education no matter how many degrees they have. The discovery of printing, and the ability to collect people’s thoughts in the form of a book was the most wonderful thing that ever happened in this world. I believe further that relatively few of the people who go to college come out educated. 

RHRC: Did your father have any good qualities? Have you ever forgiven him for the suffering he inflicted on your family? On page 255, as you’re leaving your mother’s funeral, you write, “My father was still standing there near my mother’s grave. He had his face in his hands and he was crying. I thought if he had ever shown any goodness, it was now.” Do you have any positive memories of him? 

HB:
Did my father have any good qualities? If he did he kept them very carefully from us. I don't hold grudges against dead people. They are gone and should be forgotten. 

RHRC: How did you feel about accepting others’ generosity? Did it bother you that your grandfather got the money for the tickets by begging on the street when it was a gift that your family had asked for? Why do you think that so many members of your family were blind to your grandfather’s goodness? Also, why did he travel from Chicago to panhandle on the streets of New York City? Wasn’t it very expensive to get there? 

HB:
The discovery of my grandfather’s profession was a profound shock at first, and yes, it did bother us a great deal to find that our tickets had been paid for by begging on the street. However, I myself at first was so intrigued by it and the romance in my grand - father that it affected me much less than it did the rest of the family. He was a colorful and unusual person and it made up a great deal for the way in which he made his living. As to why he divided his time between New York and Chicago, I have never been quite able to figure that out other than the sneaking suspicion that he may have been leading a double life with some other woman. Perhaps it was the landlady who gave me his books. As far as the cost of going from Chicago to New York, I think it was relatively little in those days. 

RHRC: What do you think of today’s young generation, who are almost never required to contribute to their family’s income and are likely to still depend on their parents financially, even as adults? 

HB:
I feel a great deal of sympathy for the young generation because they have been brought up in the good times, and there is nothing wrong in that. But if the current depression gets any worse then they will be compelled to go through what we went through in the 1930s and I feel very sorry for them. But that is no reason for looking down on them, because they did not have to contribute to the family income. If it was not necessary for them to do so, then there was no reason for them to have to. 

RHRC: Did you resent Joe, Saul, and Rose for leaving you with the brunt of the responsibility for your family? 

HB:
I do not quite recall saying or suggesting that they did not share any of the responsibility of the family. Actually, it was the wages that they contributed from their work that enabled me to go to school. It was a slightly different story of course after they got married and had families of their own to support. But then I didn’t expect anyone else to share that responsibility with me. 

RHRC: How did you feel about your role as “househusband” early in your marriage? As more and more women become the primary breadwinners, gender roles are changing. Are your thoughts on the roles of men and women different from your thoughts as a young man? Do you think you would be embarrassed today to hang out the washing? 

HB:
I don’t think I have ever been guilty of male chauvinism. In my early role as a househusband, as you put it, I may have been a little sensitive about it, but chiefly because I was not contributing financially to the house and not because I was doing the laundry. Everyone’s thoughts on the roles of men and women changed in the past few decades, and mine are no different from those of most people. Ever since World War II, when women took the place of men as truckers or builders, and in defense plants, everybody has become accustomed to the realization that a job today is not necessarily for a man, and when you see how women have taken the place of men as executives that feeling is even more greatly confirmed. Yes, I would still be embarrassed today to hang out the wash and in spite of all that I have just said, I don’t quite understand it. 

RHRC: Several times in your life, opportunities were not what they seemed and dead ends became opportunities. Do you believe in fate? 

HB:
I don’t believe in many things, so why should I believe in fate? I do think that certain things in your life lead to something else that is of greater advantage to you. And that often one step does seem to lead to another, but it is all pure chance and gamble, and that is mostly what makes up a person’s life. 

RHRC: Was anyone else in your family as lucky in love as you and Ruby? 

HB:
No, I think I was the only one in my entire family who was lucky enough to meet and marry someone like Ruby. I think sometimes I was luckier in that respect than most men. 

RHRC:Why are you so drawn to the genre of memoir?
 

HB:
I can think in no terms other than reality. There is nothing that makes me feel more at home than to write about it. I do not disparage fiction in any form, but I think the most important thing in the world is the reality around us and telling about it. 

Praise

Praise

“Worthy . . . [follows] Bernstein’s family . . . as they struggle to find a new life in America in 1922.”—USA Today

“Packed with carefully crafted dialogue and descriptions that transport us, with keen verisimilitude, from working-class England to Depression-era Chicago . . . Visceral, honest writing [makes] Bernstein’s memoir impossible to put down.”—Jewish News Weekly

“[A] wise, unsentimental memoir.”—New York Times

“Beneath the poignant descriptions of places and times past, beneath the rising and falling patterns of these characters’ lives, we hear what Wordsworth called ‘the still sad music of humanity.’ ”—Washington Post Book World

“Gripping . . . a powerful story of courage, sacrifice, determination, financial hardship and love.”—Jewish Chronicle

“This little book is a marvel, sparely written by a man with almost 100 years experience.”—Deseret Morning News
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Do you think Harry Bernstein achieved the American Dream? What about the other members of his family? Why did so many immigrants believe in the American Dream? Do you think it was really available to them?

2. How was Ava able to soldier on with a shred of optimism during difficult times? Do you think she truly believed that her dreams would come true? When did the dreams bolster her hope, and when did they cease to help? 

3. What do you think contributed to Yankel’s behavior toward his family? If he hadn’t needed to work from the age of seven, began drinking as a child, or had fit a different role in his own family, might he have been a more loving father? Was he a product of nature or nurture? 

4. Soon after the Bernsteins receive their tickets to America from the anonymous benefactor, Harry’s mother says, “ ‘We can’t go to America looking like beggars.’ . . . She would remember those words later and the irony they contained” (page 18). Later, when she finds out that Harry’s grandfather is a panhandler, she is horrified that he takes money from others. Why, then, was she so willing to ask her husband’s family for the tickets to America? Discuss the many different definitions of charity in The Dream. 

5. Harry can’t understand why his mother cajoles his father to come with them to America, especially since he was hoping to leave his father behind once and for all. What were her motives? What might their lives have been like if he stayed in England? 

6. Yankel’s story of desertion is the reason Ada falls in love with him, and the reason she cannot abandon him. Do you believe, as Harry’s grandfather insists, that Yankel refused to leave Poland as a boy, or do you think his mother left him behind? Is this story the sole reason Ada gave him so many chances, or do you think some part of her still loved him? 

7. “I felt with a sinking sensation that we were back to what we had come from” (page 38). Had the dream bubble Harry refers to in the beginning of the memoir already burst, so soon after they arrived in America? Have you experienced a moment like this, when you got what you had hoped for, but found that a better life was still out of reach? 

8. Why does Harry’s grandfather seem to have such fortitude against hardship? How does he protect himself emotionally in a way that much of the rest of the family cannot? Do you have a family member who seems remarkably able to roll with the punches? 

9. When Harry finds out that his grandfather has died, he thinks, “What a strange man he was . . . and how little we really knew of him, of the depth of his generosity, the sense of responsibility to his family, the goodness that was in him” (page 238). Why did Harry’s grandfather continue to send money to the children who looked down on him, even after he wasn’t invited to the wedding he paid for? 

10. Harry’s grandfather believed that he tricked Ada and pushed her into marrying Yankel. Do you think his financial assistance atoned for his lie about Ada’s first love, Samuel? Like Ada, have you ever experienced a moment that so completely changed the course of your life? 

11. Harry’s grandfather gives him a free ticket to a dance, and that is where he meets Ruby, the love of his life. Do you believe in fate? Serendipity? Love at first sight? 

12. “I was not angry with my mother. I realized how dependent she was on me, how much all her hopes and what was left of her dreams were fastened on me, and–perhaps most important– how much protection I gave her against my father. And now there was Ruby” (page 208). Harry married Ruby despite his mother’s fear of losing him. How often must we sacrifice the contentment of others to improve our own lives? Have you ever done so? Was it worth it? 

13. Who do you most admire in The Dream? Why? Is there someone in your own family who is like this character? 


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