January 27, 1965, was the official publication date of “Up the Down Staircase,” by Bel Kaufman.
The book, a first novel by the 53-year-old writer and teacher, soon made its way onto The New York Times bestseller list. It would and remain there for 64 weeks, spending five months in the No. 1 position. In 1967, it was made into a movie, which was also a hit.
Kaufman’s novel, based in part on her own experiences, is one young woman’s account of her first year as an English teacher in an inner-city New York high school. Presenting her tale by way of interoffice memos, notes from students, letters and the like, served up with generous dashes of humor and irony, Kaufman portrayed an educational community burdened by a sometimes-absurd bureaucracy (pupils can be reprimanded for traveling in the wrong direction in the one-way stairwells), unsupportive home environments, and too many teachers who are just marking time till retirement – where nonetheless, valuable learning experiences do take place every day.
Born Bella Kaufman in Berlin on May 10, 1911, she was the granddaughter of the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), whose stories, some of which served as the basis for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” still resonate with wit, irony and compassion -- in their case not for New York school pupils but rather for the wretchedness of the lives of Eastern European Jews in czarist Russia.
When she was still very young, Bella’s parents – Michael Kaufman and the former Lala Rabinovitz (Sholem Aleichem was a pseudonym for Solomon Rabinovitz) – moved from Berlin, where Michael was studying medicine, to Odessa. After the Russian Revolution, life became very uncomfortable for the family, but it was not until 1922 that they were able to get permission to leave the Soviet Union.
Pesky Russian accent
They sailed to New York, and after a year in the Bronx, settled in Newark, New Jersey, where Bella’s father opened a medical practice. Lala worked as a writer, publishing Yiddish stories regularly in the Forward newspaper, as well as translating the works of her father from Yiddish into Russian.
A dozen years after arriving in the U.S. not knowing a word of English, Bella graduated magna cum laude from Hunter College, in New York, and followed that with a master’s in literature at Columbia University. But because she retained a slight accent from her native Russia, she failed the oral exam required of those applying for a municipal teaching license.
While she waited to try again for certification, Kaufman made do with work as a substitute teacher, and also began writing stories herself.
It was in the 1940s that she changed “Bella” to “Bel,” after her agent suggested that she adopt a less-feminine version of her name. She had written a story that seemed like a good fit for Esquire, but at the time the magazine was both written and read almost exclusively by men. The ploy worked.
By 1962, newly divorced (with two children) and broke, Kaufman published a short story, “From a Teacher’s Wastebasket,” in the Saturday Review magazine. That led to a call from an editor at Prentice Hall who asked if she would be interested in expanding it into a novel.
“They give me an advance to write the book,” which she quickly spent, Kaufman told Tamar Rotem in Haaretz in 2011. “And you know what happens. You have to write the book. That’s why I wrote. I remember saying to my editor, who will pay $4 for a hardcover book about school? Nobody will buy it.”
Ultimately, “Up the Down Staircase” sold some seven million copies.
Kaufman's second novel, written in 1979, “Love, Etc.,” went nowhere. But as interest in Yiddish culture underwent a renaissance, she became a valuable source of information about Sholem Aleichem, and eventually the last direct living link to him. She remarried, and both she and husband were active in the Sholem Aleichem Memorial Foundation. At age 100, Hunter College hired her to teach a continuing-education course in Jewish humor.
Bel Kaufman died on July 25, 2014, in New York, at age 103.
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