About Bella Gluck (Kaufman)
Bel Kaufman, best known for her novel Up the Down Staircase and its subsequent film, was born in Berlin, Germany, on May 10, 1911. She is the granddaughter of the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (on whose work the musical Fiddler on the Roof is based).
Having spent her early childhood in Odessa and Moscow, she considers Russia to be her true home and Russian her native language. Her parents, Michael J. Kaufman, a physician, and Lyalya Kaufman, a writer and Sholem Aleichem’s daughter, were both native Russians. In December 1923, they immigrated to the United States with their twelve-year-old daughter to escape the hardships of postrevolutionary Russia.
When the family arrived in New York City, the young Kaufman did not speak a word of English. She was taken to the local public school by her mother, who knew no more English than she did. Kaufman was enrolled in a first-grade class with children half her age and felt immensely awkward. Her uneasiness was appeased by the kindness of her teacher, which had a profound effect upon the twelve-year-old: She decided that she too wanted to be a teacher.
Kaufman’s education progressed quickly, graduating magna cum laude from Hunter College in January 1934. That same year she married Sidney Goldstine, from whom she was divorced in the 1960s. They had two children, Jonathan and Thea. Kaufman went on to complete her master’s degree in literature at Columbia University, graduating in 1936 with highest honors. At Columbia, she was offered a doctoral fellowship, which she had to decline because she intended to support her husband in medical school. After her graduation, Kaufman began a teaching career in New York City public schools, which spanned three decades and inspired Up the Down Staircase.
Kaufman began writing and publishing her short stories in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In its early life, Esquire was considered a gentlemen’s magazine exclusively; it did not publish writing by women. When Kaufman wrote a short story in the early 1940s entitled “La Tigresse” about a femme fatale, her agent suggested that it would be perfect for Esquire if not for the unfortunate fact that she was a female writer. They decided to submit the story anyway, but not before shortening her real first name, Belle, to the more androgynous Bel. The short story was published in Esquire, and Kaufman has used the name ever since.
Up the Down Staircase was originally a short story—only three and a half pages long—published in The Saturday Review on November 17, 1962. Gladys Justin Carr, then an editor at Prentice-Hall, contacted Kaufman after reading it and encouraged her to extend her fledgling story into a full-length novel. Kaufman’s efforts resulted in what Time magazine would call “easily the most popular novel about U.S. public schools in history.”
The novel offers a portrait of a young teacher who shares much of Kaufman’s iconoclastic spirit. It chronicles the career of Sylvia Barrett, a new teacher in the public school system, and offers an incisive and humorous portrait of the interaction between teachers and students in public school. It is also a satirical look at the administrative bureaucracy teachers must overcome in order to perform their jobs. The novel was released in 1964 and spent sixty-four weeks as a best-seller, of which five months were spent in the number-one position. Up the Down Staircase was translated into sixteen languages and has sold over six million copies.
Up the Down Staircase became such a success that in 1967 a film was made based on the novel, starring Sandy Dennis and directed by Robert Mulligan. Kaufman, who served as a consultant on the film, was given a brief cameo as one of the teachers punching in with Sylvia Barrett. The film opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and was chosen to represent the United States at the Moscow Film Festival (where its title translated into Up the Staircase Leading Down). In June 1977, Up the Down Staircase became a play and a popular choice for many public school drama productions.
Kaufman’s contributions to social awareness continued well beyond the reach of her famous book. On December 7, 1987, Kaufman accepted an invitation from the Soviet embassy to join Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev as his guest at a reception held for prominent Americans. During this same year, she participated in the Moscow International Forum for a Nuclear-Free World at the invitation of the Soviet Union. There she delivered a speech on “The Role of Culture in Protecting Civilization and Universal Human Values.”
In her later career, Kaufman has been involved in theatrical writing and lecturing, and is a popular public speaker. In the 1970s, she married Sidney Gluck, who heads the Sholem Aleichem Memorial Foundation, where she is an honorary chair. The foundation was created to commemorate her grandfather and the world of Yiddish literature.
Bel Kaufman is the recipient of many awards, including UJA, ADL, and Bonds for Israel plaques, the Paperback of the Year Award, and the National School Bell Award. Bel Kaufman’s great legacy is in the literature about education in America and in the propagation of Jewish culture. Her life’s work is a poignant reminder of the struggles and dedication necessary in the search for knowledge.
SELECTED WORKS BY BEL KAUFMAN
Abroad in America (1976); Love, etc. (1979); Up the Down Staircase (1964).
INTERVIEW WITH BEL - NYTIMES
When Bel Kaufman sits you down on her sofa and asks, “Are you comfortable?” the right answer, she reminds you, requires a Yiddish inflection, a shrug and the words, “I make a living.”
At 100 years old, Ms. Kaufman is still shpritzing jokes, Jewish and otherwise, which is in her genes. Her grandfather was the great Yiddish storyteller Sholem Aleichem, a writer who was able to squeeze heartbreaking humor out of the most threadbare deprivation and wove the bittersweet Tevye stories that became the source for “Fiddler on the Roof.”
This year, Ms. Kaufman did something more than tell jokes. She became one of the few adjunct professors in her age cohort and taught a course on Jewish humor at Hunter College, her alma mater. One of the jokes the class dissected:
“The Frenchman says: ‘I’m tired and thirsty. I must have wine.’ The German says: ‘I’m tired and thirsty. I must have beer.’ The Jew says: ‘I’m tired and thirsty. I must have diabetes.’ ”
“We were not just telling jokes,” Ms. Kaufman said in her book-lined Park Avenue study, her eyes glinting mischievously. “We were investigating why so many comedians are Jewish and so many Jewish jokes are so self-accusing.”
“It goes back to immigration from the shtetl, from that poverty, and because the Jew was the object of so much opprobrium and hatred,” she said. “The jokes were a defense mechanism: ‘We’re going to talk about ourselves in a more damaging way than you could.’ ”
Her first triple-digit birthday party was Tuesday, and Ms. Kaufman was honored by Hunter, with a medley of playfully reconstructed songs from “Fiddler,” and other honors coming from the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene and the Dutch Treat Club.
Ms. Kaufman was 5 when her grandfather died, on May 13, 1916, and she believes she is the last person alive who remembers him and his impish humor.
“I remember his laugh; I remember his hand when we walked,” she said. “He used to say the tighter I hold on to his hand, the better he will write. He wrote me a letter which I treasure: ‘I’m writing you this letter to ask you to hurry and grow up and learn to write so you can write me a letter. In order to grow up, it is necessary to drink milk and eat soup and vegetables and fewer candies.’ ”
Ms. Kaufman graduated from Hunter in 1934, just 11 years after emigrating from the Soviet Union as a 12-year-old and being forced to start in first grade. Born in Berlin, she was raised in Odessa and Kiev, and the Russian Revolution was the background music of her childhood.
“Dead bodies were frozen in peculiar positions on the street,” she recalled. “People ate bread made of the shells of peas because there was no flour. But a child has no basis for comparison. Doesn’t every child step over dead bodies? I didn’t know any different.”
Ms. Kaufman’s hard work and the watchful eye of a demanding father led to a master’s degree in literature from Columbia and teaching jobs at a series of public high schools. Her 20-year odyssey became the springboard out of her grandfather’s shadow.
In 1965, she published “Up the Down Staircase,” a novel about a new teacher very much like Ms. Kaufman who struggles to keep up her spirits in a school crowded with more than a few hopeful but ornery students and where memo-happy principals issue rules like not walking “up the down staircase.”
It spent 64 weeks on The New York Times’s best-seller list and led to Ms. Kaufman’s second career as a speaker.
Ms. Kaufman, who is recovering from a broken rib, refused to have her photograph taken until she changed into a more elegant turquoise blouse, scarf and earrings. But, “without vanity,” she described herself as having been a “wonderful teacher.”
Yet she recalled how difficult it was to get fully certified by a byzantine school bureaucracy. The examiners had her explain a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and told her afterward she had given “a poor interpretation.” Having been blocked once before because of a trace of a greenhorn accent, she refused to be stopped a second time. So she did what any true aspirant would have done: she wrote a letter to Ms. Millay and had her evaluate her interpretation.
“You gave a much better explanation of it than I myself should have,” the poet wrote back, and the chastened examiners saved face by urging Ms. Kaufman to try for the license again.
She now meets former students who are grandparents. Indeed, she cannot believe that she has a son, Jonathan Goldstine, 69, who is a retired professor of computer science, and a daughter, Thea, a psychologist, who is 67. Ms. Kaufman lives with her second husband, Sidney J. Gluck, 94, who runs the Sholem Aleichem Memorial Foundation.
“He likes older women,” Ms. Kaufman said with a chuckle.
Now that her rib is healing, Ms. Kaufman intends to resume her hobby — dancing mambos and tangos at a local school. Her determination helps explain how she made it to 100, though she does not think it is such a big deal.
“It must have happened gradually, while I wasn’t looking,” she said. “I feel no different than I felt at 99, 98 or 97. Just because you live a long time, you get all this attention. Just because you survived? Of course, I survived a lot.”
Bella Gluck's Timeline
May 11, 1911
New York, New York, United States
New York, New York, United States