Émigré, Teacher, Writer: The Extraordinary Bel Kaufman

Bel Kaufman

“I so enjoy being old because for the first time I don’t have to do anything—work, teach, study. I feel very good about myself—and at my age I can say no to anything now if I don’t want to do it. What a liberating word.”

—Bel Kaufman

Bel Kaufman (b. 1911) is a writer, teacher, and lecturer best known for her classic, bestselling novel Up the Down Staircase (1965).

Kaufman was born to Russian parents in Berlin, Germany, because her father was in medical school there. When he completed his studies, the Kaufmans moved to Odessa, Russia. This was during the Russian revolution. Kaufman was three years of age and spent her childhood in Odessa. Her parents encouraged her to write from a very young age, and her earliest supporter was her grandfather, Sholom Aleichem, a beloved writer and humorist whose Yiddish tales of Tevye the Milkman later inspired the 1960s musical Fiddler on the Roof. Kaufman’s mother, Lyalya, was also an accomplished short story writer. In Odessa, the revolution created many problems. Deteriorating conditions throughout  Russia and the Ukraine ultimately drove the Kaufmans to Moscow, to get permission to immigrate to the United States.

Kaufman learned English only after her arrival in New York City. At twelve years of age, she was enrolled in the first grade of public school because of her lack of knowledge of English. With the help of a sympathetic teacher, she soon caught up and flourished.

After a year at New York University, she was admitted to Hunter College in New York City and graduated magna cum laude three and a half years later. She then obtained a master’s degree in literature from Columbia University, graduating with high honors.

Kaufman’s ambition to teach in public high schools was met with a series of obstacles. Her efforts to earn teaching accreditation were thwarted first by the school board, with objections to her slight Russian accent, and then by an examiner who disagreed with her interpretation of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Determined to prove the examiner wrong, Kaufman wrote to Millay explaining the situation, and the poet’s positive response was most gratifying. Kaufman’s early battles with school bureaucracy would become one of the hallmark subjects of her later writing.

In 1934, she married Sydney Goldstine, a young medical student. The couple had two children, Jonathan and Thea, whom Kaufman raised while she was teaching, a job she held for more than thirty years. During the 1940s and ’50s, Kaufman also wrote short stories in magazines, a pursuit that became increasingly important to her after her children left home and her marriage to Goldstine ended.

In 1962, Kaufman submitted a three-page collage of school memos, student notes, and various papers of public school life in the Saturday Review of Literature.  An editor at Prentice Hall saw it and asked Kaufman to develop that short piece into a full-sized novel. Kaufman did, and the book, Up the Down Staircase, published in 1965, winning immediate acclaim and spending sixty-four weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The book’s success led to Kaufman’s second career as a popular speaker at teacher conferences and other events around the country. In 1967, Up the Down Staircase was made into a movie starring Sandy Dennis.

In addition to writing and lecturing on education and many other topics, Kaufman continued to write. Her novel Love, Etc. (1979) is about a woman who finds solace after her divorce by rendering the difficult experience as fiction.

Now a centenarian, Kaufman continues to live in New York, where she recently taught a class on Jewish humor at her alma mater, Hunter College. She is married to Sidney Gluck, head of the Sholom Aleichem Memorial Foundation, and continues to write.