Memoir confronts a traumatic childhood

Before becoming a script reader in MGM’s New York office, a young Harry Bernstein earned $10 apiece for the realistic, gritty stories he tapped out in his family’s potbellied tenement apartment.

They were printed in small magazines, with communist-sounding titles such as “The Anvil” and “The Hub,” fueling his hopes of being a writer, if not the furnace around which his siblings huddled.

After Bernstein finished his first novel, his prospective publisher demurred but offered him a job as a script reader for MGM. Bernstein went on to write an article here, a short story there, but didn’t sit down to write in earnest until his wife died about six years ago.

In 2007, at the age of 96, he debuted with “The Invisible Wall,” a memoir that recounted his early adolescence in rural England.

Most recently, he published a memoir titled “The Dream: A Memoir,” in which he returns to his childhood, this time focusing on the experience of moving to and growing up in America as a poor Jew.

“The Dream” is packed with carefully crafted dialogue and descriptions that transport us, with keen verisimilitude, from working-class England to Depression-era Chicago. Trash cans and alleys are populated by rats; unemployment offices are populated by desperate men. Winter’s winds slice through shabby overcoats; summer’s stifling air reeks of rotting fruit.

As if it weren’t hard enough to be a Jewish immigrant thrust into crime-riddled Chicago, Bernstein was also born to a father who referred to his children as “bastards” and spent the family’s food money in speakeasies. His memories of his father will fill your stomach with an ache familiar to every child who fears their dad.

Bernstein portrays his paternal grandfather as a manipulative, if generous, fraud, and his paternal grandmother as a judgmental, defensive blowhard. Is it any wonder, then, that his selfish and furious father lends further instability to his already unstable world?

When Bernstein fantasizes about a German shooting his father, the thought seems more cheerful than disturbing.

But “The Dream” is less about his father, and more about his all-too-forgiving mother, who maddeningly insists on keeping her children in this terrifying environment. Despite her stubbornness, she provides them with their only happy moments, showing them the familial affection their father seems to hate.

Bernstein loves and respects his mother so much that it seems hard for him to blame her for keeping her children in this unhappy home; instead, he focuses on the hope she gave her family, and applauds the tenacity with which she managed to make every one of her promises for a better life come true.

Indeed, the dream that the book’s title belongs to his mother. Her optimism and determination are even more impressive in the presence of a man the family will only call “he” or “him,” never “father.”

It’s no surprise that Bernstein’s upbringing causes an absence, if not a crisis, of faith. But while religion doesn’t affect the family dynamics, it provides a poignant backdrop for the violent drunkenness of weddings and holidays.

The Bernsteins run the gamut of religious practice, from observance to indifference. One brother, Saul, turns to Orthodox Judaism and longs to be a rabbi. Stymied by his social position and lack of opportunity, he eventually settles for marrying a cosmetics-slathered woman who would rather physically abuse him than shop at the kosher butcher. He steadfastly works to convert her, redeem her behavior and unearth purer values.

Bernstein’s sisters marry sweet-tempered non-Jewish men. In the case of the cold, standoffish second sister, Rose, everyone is so stunned she found a willing partner that there’s very little protest.

At one point, Bernstein is cornered by Saul and confesses, “I’m not a communist, but I don’t believe in religion.”

One feels that the absence of faith in his life has not been a source of regret. Still, it has left a cavity for him to fill with the love and forgiveness that can sometimes only come with age and perspective.

Up until the sweet, sad end of “The Dream,” Bernstein cleanly avoids what he says are the literary traits preferred by the American public, “sickly sentiment and lots of sex,” preferring heartfelt sentiment and just a little sex.

These laudable traits, combined with his visceral, honest writing, make Bernstein’s memoir impossible to put down.

“The Dream: A Memoir,” by Harry Bernstein (260 pages, Ballantine Books, $24)