Q&A: Bel Kaufman — At 100, She Knows from Funny

| August 4, 2011 6:00 AM video

Some people peak in college. Others in their 50s. Then there’s Bel Kaufman. Born in Berlin and raised in Odessa and Kiev in the midst of the Russian Revolution before emigrating to New York.

Kaufman got an early start. When she was 4 years old,  her grandfather encouraged her to write.  Her grandfather was the eminent Yiddish humorist storyteller Sholem Aleichem (a pen name, which in Yiddish means, “Peace upon you”). By age 7, she was already published.  And, she was already funny.

After earning a master’s degree from Columbia, Kaufman became a New York City teacher. Her teaching experiences formed the basis for her 1965 best-selling novel “Up the Down Staircase.” She has since published several other works and recently taught a class on Jewish humor at Hunter College — where she earned her B.A.  77 years ago.

Q. What’s it like to be 100?

A. It has great advantages. All my life I did what I had to do. I had to go to school, to teach, to write. Now I do only what I want to do. If people ask me to do something I don’t want to do, I say, “sorry, I’m 100!” I don’t have to think of excuses because the truth is much easier! But when I was 90 I never sought to remember something. Now, at 100, I sometimes forget things.

WATCH VIDEO:

100 years young, Bel Kaufman looks back on her life and talks about her grandfather, Sholem Aleichem. MetroFocus/Bijan Rezvani.

Q. Tell us about your grandfather, Sholem Aleichem, whose stories were the basis for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

A. His humor was laughter through tears — Jewish humor. It poked fun at adversity. It thumbed the nose at disaster, it laughed off troubles and it’s a way of survival. It’s how the Jewish people have survived. But most importantly it’s losing everything, but winning the argument with a classic Jewish sentiment.
In an American musical, obviously, you are not going to describe the poverty, hardships, pain, illness and death that were rampant in Sholem Aleichem’s stories. Instead, you sing, “matchmaker, matchmaker.”

Q. Give us an example of a quintessential Jewish-American Joke.

A. Woody Allen has a great one. “I didn’t make the chess team because of my height.” You need height to play chess? Of course not! The defense mechanism is before someone turns around and calls him [short] he will make a joke about it himself. And it is incongruous, silly.

Q. What do you think your grandfather would think about your life today?

A. Well, a year before he died he wrote me a letter: “To Bellushka, I want you to hurry up and grow and learn to write so that you can write me letters. And in order to grow, it is necessary to drink milk, eat soup and vegetables and fewer candies. Your Papa Sholem Aleichem who loves you.  Regards to your dolls.”

Well, I did grow up. I did learn to write. But not in time. So now, at the age of 100 years, I am writing my memoir. I am answering my Papa. Dear Papa Sholem, I did grow up. I did learn to write. And this is what’s been happening to you and to me. This will be the foundation for my memoir.

MetroFocus Intern Daniella Greenbaum conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.

  • elaine cohen

    Bel kaufman is, as always, a share delight

  • mimi stern-wole

    I saw the wonderful movie on your grandfather and it made me feel very warm and happy to be part of the Jewish family.

    I wish you long life and to continue your jokes and stories that amuse and that remind me of the many things I need to remember.

    sincerely,

    mimi stern-wolfe
    http://www.downtownmusicproductions.org

    .

  • suzany

    As the world crumbles under our feet, I encounter the 100-year-old Bel Kaufman. Just last week I was rereading “Up the Down Staircase”, the collective unconscious doing its usual sleight-of-hand. The most important thing she said, to my mind, is that out of great suffering comes the greatest humor. Just like manure gives us roses. Hope you make it through another century, Bel Kaufman, although I’m not sure I will–

  • Leni Anders

    Wonderful to see how amazing she still is. Bel (at that time Goldstine) was one of my English teachers at the High School of Performing Arts. I still have a composition I wrote in her class! She was very memorable then, as now.

  • Sondra Goldberg Bromberg

    Dear Bel,
    As a former High School of Performing Arts English student of yours also; having read all the nice replies, I want to say ditto, ditto, ditto. (See I learned something in class I hope). Actually, I enjoyed reading and discussing books in class the most. You are wonderful and amazing. I hope you will continue inspiring others for a long long time.
    Fondly and Sincerely,
    Sandra (Used to be Sondra)

  • Joanne Theodorou

    She sounds like a treasure, and I wish she were MY high school English teacher! I devoured “Up the Down Staircase” BEFORE high school…and this well prepared me for life in a big urban school… it should be part of the middle school curriculum.
    The bitter with the sweet, this is life…. this philosophy is not limited to one ethnic group…. it’s a universal truth.
    Long, long life Bel…can’t wait to read your memoirs.

  • ellen Gilman

    DearBel, A remarkable thing happened -oh, maybe it was 4 years ago. I stopped into the Whitney Museum to visit their gift shop which is in the basement. As I started down the formidable stone staircase, you were coming up the staircase – you- my fabulous English teacher at the H.S. of Performing Arts – and you remembered me and you remembered the autobiography I’d written for your class and you were wearing a pair of stiletto high heels!!
    It’s time for me to say hello again and happy new year!! With much love, Ellen Petersilie Gilman.

  • renee becker

    Dear Ms Kaufman
    You really sound a wonderful person and I wish you well. My father Benny Pollak told me that his grandmother was a cousin (?) of Sholem Aleichem. Her name was Mima Raisel. Does that name mean anything to you. He apparently mentioned her in one of his stories. Sad to say my father passed away and I have no none to ask more details from.

    I would be interested to hear from you.
    Renee Becker (Pollak)

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  • sonia steinberg

    Would like to know more about your aunts and uncles on fathers side.
    My great grandmothers name was Mina Rabinowich Broder. Was always told we were related somehow. Mina married Kalman Broder and lived in Bklyn

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