By Cathy Rainone
EVEN AT 101 YEARS OLD, Bel Kaufman is still fashionable — sporting oversized Gucci shades and a matching scarf at her Park Avenue apartment one late fall afternoon.
“If I don’t look put together at my age, when will I ever,” Kaufman quips.
She is the granddaughter of a celebrated Yiddish storyteller — Sholem Aleichem — whose anecdotes inspired the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”
But the 1934 Hunter College graduate is best known for her 1965 novel, Up the Down Staircase, which spent 64 weeks on The New York Times’ best-seller list.
The book, inspired by Kaufman’s years as a New York City public schoolteacher, chronicles the career of Sylvia Barrett, a young teacher struggling with a byzantine school administration. Much of the book provides a humorous portrait of the relationships between the English teacher and the students in her inner-city school.
Kaufman retired from the school system more than half a century ago, but she never stopped teaching. A book tour launched her second career as a public speaker and being in front of an audience, Kaufman says, “is also teaching.”
As recently as 2011, Kaufman taught a seminar on Jewish humor at Hunter College. When she met her eight students she decided to make the class informal. She threw out her notes, arranged seats in a semicircle and they all simply talked.
“It was like coming home,” says Kaufman. “We discussed why so many American humorists and comics are Jewish. We had a lot of laughs. Students brought examples of Jewish humor, and we talked about why they’re funny and what makes them Jewish.”
Kaufman’s former high school students still visit her. They come with their grandchildren and remind her of what she was like as an English teacher. They remember the poetry she taught them, her clothes and especially the clicking of her stilettos as she ran up and down the school staircase.
“You never know students’ memories of you,” says Kaufman. “It’s a kind of immortality. I was a great teacher and I say it without any false modesty.”
Kaufman decided to become a teacher during college when a friend invited her to visit her class at the Hunter elementary school. Kaufman remembers the class being full of 6- and 7-year-olds with their eyes fixed on her.
“They were waiting for something important that would make a difference in their lives, that they would never forget,” she says. “That was a moment I knew I wanted to be a teacher.”
Kaufman was born in Berlin and grew up in Odessa and Moscow during the Russian Revolution. “Bullets were flying everywhere,” she says of her childhood. “We were stepping over frozen dead bodies, but you know, a child has no basis for comparison — doesn’t every child step over dead bodies? So it didn’t bother me, that’s how life was.”
Her family left the Soviet Union for New York when she was 12. She couldn’t speak English, so she started out in first grade. But she quickly caught up, graduating magna cum laude from Hunter and completing a master’s degree in literature at Columbia University with high honors.
“Being a student at Hunter College was sheer heaven,” Kaufman recalls in her study surrounded by books and photos of her beloved grandfather and family. “Our teachers were important scholars who had written books on their subjects. And I had the most fabulous education. I learned Anglo-Saxon, Middle English poetry. I learned so much there, that when I went to Columbia for my master’s degree, it was like lower grade.”
But getting certified for teaching by the city’s Board of Education wasn’t easy. Kaufman passed the written exams, but failed the oral portion for “foreign melody.” She took speech classes to get rid of her Russian accent, but flunked the test again when an examiner decided that she gave “a poor interpretation” of a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Angry this time, Kaufman wrote to the poet asking her to evaluate the interpretation.
“I got a three-and-a-half page letter from her saying … ‘surely it’s a clerical error … I myself could not have explained my poem so well,'” Kaufman recalls. She sent a copy of Millay’s letter to the Board but they held firm. “It was a face-saving move,” Kaufman says. “I took the exam again the following year and I’ve been teaching ever since.”
Over the years Kaufman has written many essays and short stories. Recently they were collected for the first time and are now available as eBooks, This and That: Random Thoughts and Recollections, and LaTigresse: and Other Short Stories.
Up the Down Staircase began as a short story, published in The Saturday Review in 1962. An editor at the publishing house Prentice Hall asked Kaufman to expand it into a book. Kaufman was 54 when it was published. It was an immediate success.
“I always thought I would be a writer, a journalist possibly, but I didn’t dare to compare myself to Sholem Aleichem,” says Kaufman. “It was only after I published Up the Down Staircase and critics said I wore the mantle well, with the same humor and compassion as Sholem Aleichem, that it was as if I was given permission to be a writer, too.” She also wrote another novel, Love, Etc.
Kaufman is thinking about writing a memoir in letter form to her grandfather, who died when she was 5 years old. But for now, she’s enjoying being 101.
“For the first time I don’t have to do anything, nothing is expected of me,” she says. “If I don’t want to go someplace all I have to say is, ‘No thank you, I’m 101 years old!’ Terrific excuse. It’s such a liberating experience to say no thank you.”