Bel Kaufman Serves Up a Blast From a Yiddish-writing Past

On the occasion of her 100th birthday, American author Bel Kaufman, granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem, summons up personal memories of the life of the illustrious Yiddish writer.

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
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Bel Kaufman. When Sholem Aleichem finished a story, 'he would get all dressed up. People think of him as a shtetl character, but he was slim, slight and elegant.'
Bel Kaufman. When Sholem Aleichem finished a story, 'he would get all dressed up. People think of him as a shtetl character, but he was slim, slight and elegant.'Credit: Dan Keinan
Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

American author Bel Kaufman - an attractive, vivacious woman - recently celebrated her 100th birthday. Kaufman also happens to be the granddaughter of the renowned Sholem Aleichem. "One hundred!" she claps her hands, exclaiming in an affected, dramatic tone, "What is it with this age!?"

She has just opened the front door of her Manhattan apartment, and is wearing an elegant black dress that's been livened up by a floral-print flourish. Her light-colored hair is pulled back, and a friendly smile spreads across her face.

Kaufman is happy to enumerate the advantages of her advanced age. For example, it is a great excuse for things. "All my life, I had to do this and do that. Now I don't need to work. Say I don't feel I want to go to somebody's cocktail party [and am asked] 'Why aren't you coming?' 'I am 100 years old. I have to lie down.' A marvelous excuse!"

Kaufman did show up at at least one recent cocktail party: the one celebrating her centennial. Since last May, when that big round date fell, she has become the focus of much attention. At Hunter College, where she once studied - and where she recently began to teach a course on Jewish humor (and this is only one of her pursuits ) - her birthday was celebrated by many. She was also interviewed by The New York Times. "When I turned 100, the media contacted me and started calling me the grand dame of American literature. When I was 99, I was not the grand dame," she comments with a smile.

Her book "Up the Down Staircase" became a best-seller when it was published in the 1960s (it was published in Hebrew by Am Oved ), and was later made into a Hollywood film. Until then, Kaufman had apparently been devoted to her career as a teacher. When success came, her larger-than-life image emerged along with her wit, her energy (dancing in the nightclubs of "Little Odessa" in Coney Island until she turned 90 ) and, of course, her writing, which is very personal and heart-rending.

In recent years people have sought Kaufman out as a speaker, and also as a source of information about her grandfather, Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916 ). Awareness of him and his literary oeuvre has apparently only increased over the years - thanks to the successful mid-1990s Broadway revival of "Fiddler on the Roof" (based on his "Tevye the Milkman" stories ), the many new translations of his works that have come out recently, both in Israel and the United States, as well as the new documentary about him that was released this past summer in America ("Sholem Aleichem : Laughing in the Darkness," directed by Joseph Dorman ).

Bel Kaufman is the last person alive with personal memories of the writer, whose real name was Sholem Rabinovich, and of his wife Olga and their six children. In 1911, Lyala, the couple's third child, was living in Berlin with her husband, Michl Koifman, a bright and handsome medical student. That is where their daughter Bella was born. Three years later, after her father completed his studies, the family settled in Odessa. That city was home to many of the important Hebrew and Yiddish writers of that time: Ahad Ha'am, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Moshe Leib Lilienblum and Haim Nahman Bialik. Sholem Aleichem himself had his home in Kiev, from which he departed for trips around Europe, either for public readings of his works or due to a lengthy search for treatment of his illnesses, principal among them tuberculosis.

Because he was a "godfather" sort of person who liked to have the entire family - what he referred to as "my republic" - close at hand, "Belluchka" made frequent trips to her grandparents'. There is a large photograph in Kaufman's apartment that shows her grandfather with his granddaughter Tamara on his lap. (She died many years ago and was daughter of his eldest daughter Ernestina-Tisi, and of Y.D. Berkowitz, his son-in-law, who translated and edited the writings of Sholem Aleichem ). Also in the photo is 2-year-old Bella.

When Kaufman was a little girl, her grandfather was ensconced in a flurry of writing activity, even though the majority of his great works had already been written by then. Well before she was born, he had been a very wealthy man, but in 1890 he lost his fortune in the stock market and had been preoccupied with earning a livelihood ever since.

My cousin Tamara and I were his only grandchildren born when he was alive. He loved us very much and he loved to spend time with us, says Kaufman, adding that Sholem Aleichem liked to distribute unique gifts to the children: Do you see that mountain over there? he would ask. I just gave it to Tamaruchka. You see this lake? I am making a present of it for Belluchka. We were so very pleased with those wonderful presents. Only when I grew up did I understand his greatness, and the gift that he granted the world. He left a heritage of love and laughter. Love for the common people and laughter in the face of adversity.

His first audience

Sholem Aleichem liked to write standing up, and would begin working in the early morning hours. According to Prof. Dan Miron, a Hebrew and comparative literature scholar who has studied the writings of Sholem Aleichem since the 1970s, he published something every week during Bellas childhood.

Kaufman: There was no one happier than he when his granddaughter was holding his hand while he worked. Hold my hand tight, so that Ill be able to write better, hed say. So in a way, I have a part in his stories.

At home in the evenings, he would sometimes read his family a new story. We were his first audience. When he finished a story, he would get all dressed up he liked to be nicely dressed. People think of him as a shtetl character, but he was slim, slight and elegant. There were special polished buttons on his jacket, and he had a watch on a chain. He was quite a dandy, and very youthful, Kaufman recalls.

He loved to play with his granddaughters. He adored us. He made up funny games for us. Guests would leave their overshoes in the hall, and Sholem Aleichem would tell the children to mix them up. Pranks like that, she says.

One day, when grandfather and granddaughter were out on a walk, they saw a monkey in a tree. Papa rolled up a piece of paper and turned it into a cup, and then filled it with water from the river and offered it to the monkey but in vain.

Spoiled monkey, he shouted, and then filled the cup several times and drank from it. Only later did I understand that extreme thirst is a symptom of his disease. He wrote my mother, Now I know that Ill never die of hunger; Ill die of thirst. This was his way of dealing with the incurable disease. If you laugh, you cant feel pain.

One day in 1914, we were on one of our visits with Papa, in Germany I and my cousin in a beautiful house where they cooked good meals. We were out playing with shovels and rakes in the garden with Papa, when the war broke out. Suddenly, Russia and Germany were enemies, and the Russian members of the family instantly became refugees. We had to flee to the railroad station. And the family broke up.

Bella and her parents returned to Odessa. Sholem Aleichem, his youngest son Misha, and his youngest daughter Emma and her husband, who were looking for a safe haven, continued on to Copenhagen, the only remaining port through which it was possible to leave. At the last possible moment, the writer managed to get out and leave for the United States, but the other family members were stuck. The announcement came through a few days later that Misha, 25, was dead. This was a hard blow for Sholem Aleichem, who wrote to Kaufmans mother and father: He died and took away part of my heart. Without a doubt, Mishas death hastened his own death, says Kaufman.

Today, back in Kaufmans memory-laden apartment, the photo albums are open. Here she is, a girl of 4 or 5, with two big dolls. Her grandfather, she says, wrote something every day, to each and every member of his family. I hereby write you that I love you very much! Grandfather Sholem Aleichem, America, he writes to her, a child who doesnt yet know how to read, one year before his death in 1916.

Hurry and grow up

In a letter to Tamara, he writes: Send regards to Miss Bella Kaufman. Tell her that she writes exactly like a chicken on the sand. I am kissing you, and thinking: When will it be summer already? Your papa, Sholem Aleichem. In a letter to her parents, dated September 2, 1915, he adds: P.S. To Belluchka: Im 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. Regards to your dolls.

The Kaufmans summer home was on the Black Sea coast. One summer, when Bella was sitting there with her two dolls, one on each side, a young man came up and smiled at her. It was Haim Nahman Bialik. Another time, he looked at my handwriting and said, This is the handwriting of a writer. We laughed.

Bialik was among the few people who believed in and supported Sholem Aleichem at a time when other authors accused him of simplistic writing that was merely intended to amuse. The dacha belonging to Bialik, a resident of Odessa until 1921, was not far from the Kaufmans house. We saw him all the time in our house, recalls Kaufman, who claims she served as the inspiration for his poem Shtayim Bubotayim (Two Dolls), which Bialik wrote in 1916.

In a letter dated December 15, 1915, Sholem Aleichem wrote from New York: Please have Belluchka give Bialik a kiss in my name, in honor of his birthday. It would be a shame if Belluchka didnt know Hebrew well enough to read our esteemed poet in the original! Warm kisses to the three of you. In fact, Bella didnt know Yiddish, either. Only Russian.
People ask how it is possible that the family of the great Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem didnt speak Yiddish. Its simple: We didnt live in a shtetl, in a town. We lived in big cities.

Five months later, a telegram with bad news arrived at the dacha: Papa very sick, it said. My parents understood [what had happened], Kaufman recounts. That day, Bialik came in holding a newspaper that had published Sholem Aleichems will.

Six hundred thousand Jews showed up along the route of Sholem Aleichems funeral. It was an impressive funeral, explains scholar Miron. They brought the coffin from Harlem, where he lived, and the procession passed along Fifth Avenue as a sort of show for the wealthy New Yorkers. They wrote about it in all of the newspapers. The funeral held great significance in the annals of Jewish public life in New York, so much so that it signaled a turning point in the the American publics attitude to the Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Europe, who until then were treated with abiding contempt. This public, with its openness to democratic demonstrations, came to understand that there was a large public here that could be significant in elections. Americas entire attitude to Jews began to take on a different form.

Sholem Aleichem seems to have embraced all of the options open to a Jew in the early 20th century: He was an immigrant, assimilated and Zionist. And more than anything, it seems that America presented the best opportunities of all. He went there twice, with hopes of success. In 1906, he arrived as a literary hero, but his plays were unsuccessful there and he returned to Europe with his tail between his legs. In 1914, he arrived once again, ailing and shattered. One day they will put on my plays here, but I will not see it, he wrote his wife in one of his melancholy letters.

The shame of hunger

In 1917, Bel Kaufmans world was rocked a second time, she remembers: Dead bodies were frozen in peculiar positions on the street. We suffered the shame of hunger. There was a real fear. My fathers colleagues were sent to prison. We were enemies of the Bolshevik regime, not because we were Jewish, but because we were bourgeoisie. We had our own house. One day I was strolling with my brothers baby carriage in front of the house. I was 9 years old. And then two large women wearing leather jackets were marching toward me. We used to call them the new women. They lifted my baby brother out of the stroller and put him in my thin, emaciated arms. We also have babies, they said and wheeled the carriage away. That was my lesson in Communism.

In 1923, her family went to Moscow in an attempt to receive an exit permit for the United States. My mother somehow got in to see the minister of culture, and told him that she was the daughter of Sholem Aleichem. Even at a time when anti-Semitism was at its height, my grandfathers name still opened doors. From Moscow, we were sent in a private train to Riga. And in Riga, we got on the boat. I was 12, a lean girl, without a single word of English.

They went straight to the Bronx, to Grandma Olgas spacious house. They lived there for a year or so and then, once her father received his license to practice medicine, the family moved to Newark. At the first chance I had, after graduating high school, I ran off to Manhattan, she says.

Kaufman studied English literature at Hunter College, and graduated with honors. Afterward, a girlfriend asked her to fill in for at a kindergarten, and she found herself in the world of teaching. For the first time in my life, I stood in front of these eyes, which stared at me in expectation, waiting for me to give them something. Something important, something memorable. It was a formative moment, and I have never forgotten that feeling.

A few years later, her marriage was falling apart, and she says she was bursting my banks. She would periodically send short stories to magazines, and even had some of them published, in Esquire magazine. She also changed her name from Bella to Bel.

One young editor was impressed by a short story she sent in, about an idealistic teacher struggling with the administration and bureaucracy of the school system. She asked Kaufman to expand it into a novel. Kaufman at first said no, but the advance that was offered to her changed her mind: I had just left my husband. I had left everything. My children were grown and on the way to college, my mother was dying in the hospital. And for the first time, I was on my own. They give me an advance to write the book. It was quite a bit, but I used it up because I had no money. And you know what happens? You have to write the book. Thats why I wrote. I remember saying to my editor, who will pay $4 for a hardcover book about school? Nobody will buy it. A few people bought: seven million.

That book, published in 1965, was Up the Down Staircase, a fictional story based on her life as a teacher in a Manhattan high school. I got the title from the principal, who saw me walking up the down staircase. A terrible crime. We had no elevators. The stairs were separated so that nobody would bump into one another.

When Kaufman was 60, she met Prof. Sidney Gluck, a few years her junior; he asked her out to dinner. So I looked at him and said, For you, Id cook dinner. And then I said, What did I just say? I cant cook. So the following weekend he came over with wine. I got steaks, and he cooked them. Ever since, they have lived together happily on the Upper East Side. Gluck is 93 (He likes older women, she jokes) and goes to the office every day: He directs the Sholem Aleichem Memorial Foundation together with Kaufman, and is also an expert on China.

For her part, Kaufman says she would like to sit one day and write her memoir. I do have a feeling, naturally, of my time limit. How limited, I dont know, but definitely limited. So I would like to do only the important things with my time. What is important to me? My family, my friends, my writing. She hasnt given up dancing. She no longer does so in the smoky bars of little Odessa, due to the ravages of age, but it is also possible to dance Paso Doble in a comfortable studio on the Upper East Side.

Hebrew University Yiddish literature professor Avraham Novershtern says that in the 1950s and 60s, Sholem Aleichem was no longer an object of interest to the second generation of immigrants who had built lives in America and assimilated. The heritage of Sholem Aleichem had dissipated so much that the family sold the rights to the Tevye the Milkman stories, on which Fiddler on the Roof was based, for pennies.

In 1964, we went to see the play, says Kaufman. My mother kept saying to me: This isnt Papa. They made it into a very good American musical. [But] he always wanted something like that.

The play restored nostalgia for Judaism to the second generation, says Novershtern.
The waves in the popularity of Sholem Aleichem only demonstrate the writers staying power, believes Dan Miron, who claims that every era finds in him a different quality that speaks to its sensibility. From among all the leading writers of that period, hes the only survivor. He crosses boundaries .... They read him in Japan, and they put on his plays there, and hes translated into every language. Hes the living author. During the 1930s, Scholem Asch was a competitor for the title, later Bashevis Singer. But as time passes, its clear that Scholem Aleichem has qualities that keep him fresh, open and accessible to a variety of readers. And because of this, he has become an iconic figure.

Miron says that Sholem Aleichem achieved this through his use of monologue: The heroes trip themselves up, contradict themselves, outflank themselves like Tevye. None of his daughters did what he said. He brought the troubles home, he didnt watch carefully over one of them and allowed her to convert, he told them to marry rich men, but when the youngest got married, he couldnt stand her husband. We read the justifications and enjoy their charm and beauty. [Tevye] is a total loser, and everyone loves him.

Sholem Aleichem offered another option of what literature is, agrees Israeli author Matan Hermoni, whose fictional book Hebrew Publishing Company, set in New York in the early 20th century, was recently published. One in which literature is not some sort of sacred temple, where you have to provide full reporting of the nations account ledgers. Rather, one in which there is an amusing dimension, one in which you have to look at things from [another place]. Then you can make most profound statements.

When it comes to the great works, literature is more of an ear, not a finger, adds Miron. An ear that absorbs and recounts the real world.



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