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

August 04, 2011 at 6:00 am

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.


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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.

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