Spotlight On: Bel Kaufman, Author of Up The Down Staircase
by Rachael O'Halloran
August 1, 2014
Bel Kaufman - Author
Quick Bio - Bel Kaufman
Birth Name: Bella Kaufman
Birthdate: May 10, 1911 in Berlin, Germany
Date of Death: July 25, 2014, New York City, NY (age 103)
Parents: Mikhail Y. Koyfman (d. 1938), a physician, and Lyalya Rabinowitz Kaufman (1887-1964), an author
Siblings: Sherwin Kaufman (1920 - ), retired physician - age 94 in 2014
Marriages: Sidney Goldstine (1936-1960), Sydney Gluck (1970 - her death)
Profession: High school English teacher, public speaker, humorist, author of "Up The Down Staircase," lecturer
Best Known For: being the granddaughter of famous Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem and author of the novel "Up The Down Staircase," (1964)
Her name might not be familiar to you, but when you hear the title of her famous book, you'll say "Oh, that's who she is!"
Bel Kaufman was the author of the best selling book "Up The Down Staircase," which enjoyed critical success in print, with over 6 million copies sold.
It was also made into a film starring Sandy Dennis, as well as many stage productions which continue to this day.
Have you read the book or seen the movie?
I think I must have read the book at least five times through the years. I know I've seen the movie over a dozen times and attended umpteen stage productions in high schools, colleges and neighborhood repertory theaters.
Fresh out of college and armed with her teaching degree, Sylvia Barrett begins her career at a high school in the slums of NY where the classes are overcrowded with kids who want to be anywhere but in school. They come from poor families, they are in gangs, their manners are non-existent, and they are hostile to the new teacher's ways of handling a classroom.
Ms. Barrett is bogged down in excuses from students (think of Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back Kotter here), that cover everything from absence to lateness, and incomplete homework.
Add in the unsolicited advice from teachers on school rules as well as which staircase to use ("You are going up the down staircase, Ms. Barrett!") and you have a teacher who is seriously reconsidering whether she even wants to remain in this job. Until one day, a shy awkward student suddenly developed a take charge attitude as he portrayed a judge during a mock trial class exercise ... his new confidence makes her understand that she has made a difference after all.
Up The Down Staircase Book Cover
Up The Down Staircase
Isn't That A Great Title?
At first glance, the book's title might seem a little quirky. And in the 1960s, I guess it was, at least to those who didn't spend time in the company of teenage high school kids.
Then again the title might have brought back a distant high school memory to some readers, stirring their curiosity enough to read the blurb on the book cover, then buy the book. Her book was published in 1965 and to date has sold over 6 million copies, spending 64 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Not bad for quirky!
Actually, the book's title comes from a note given to a student to explain his late return to class. The note said he was detained and admonished because he walked "up the down staircase."
Upon reading many summaries on book and magazine websites, there are no less than fifty references as to how Bel Kaufman came to choose her title. Almost all have to do with a note given to a student returning to class, but each summary has very different wording. The one I chose to publish here is from an interview Bel gave to a Russian reporter and the translation is close, if not spot on.
"Up The Down Staircase" got its start as a short essay titled "From A Teacher's Wastebasket" which was published in 1962 in the Saturday Review of Literature. Bel was paid a handsome $100 for it - $25 went to her agent and she got to keep the other $75 for herself. She never thought they would publish it, much less pay her $100 for it. She said in one interview that she was very near to throwing it away when she decided to submit it.
Shortly after, it caught the eye of Gladys Justin Carr, an editor at Prentice-Hall Publishers who who said her essay might make the nice start to a novel. When Bel resisted, they gave her a cash advance.
- "When I got the [advance] money, I spent it to pay bills. I couldn't give the money back, so I had to write the book!" Bel said in a 2012 interview.
(Note to all aspiring writers: Never throw any of your writing away ... it could become the idea for a best seller!)
She wrote the book at perhaps one of the lowest periods of her life. She was divorced from her first husband, Dr. Sydney A Goldstine, her two children were grown and living on their own, and she was living in a small New York apartment. It took her nearly nine months to write the book, she says, in part because she was dealing with her mother's illness as she ran back and forth to hospital and her home. Her mother died shortly after Bel finished writing the book.
The 1960s story was constructed in a most unusual way. Bel wrote of her own experiences as a young high school English teacher in New York City public schools, but she used fictionalized notes, letters, memos, lesson plans, student tests and assignments as her format. Her writing has been compared to her grandfather's in that he also used letters and notes to tell his stories.
Funny and sometimes downright painful, "Up The Down Staircase" honestly presented the problems that high school students faced with drug addiction, teen pregnancy, peer pressure, and racial discrimination.
In 1967, two Hollywood studios wanted to use the book to make a movie - 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers.
Warner Brothers won Bel Kaufman over with their plans for her book.
Bel was given credit as author and also as a technical advisor on the set, which meant she got paid to just be there, as most writers did in those days. It was the opinion of most Hollywood movie studios that once authors wrote the book, their input was over. However, Bel was also given a brief cameo as one of the teachers punching in at the time clock with the lead character, Sylvia Barrett. The screenplay was written by Tad Mosel and the movie starred Sandy Dennis as Sylvia Barrett and Eileen Heckart.
"Up The Down Staircase" has been performed in over 100 Broadway, off-Broadway and amateur stage productions and has enjoyed considerable success for nearly 50 years.
- My son's high school performed the play as part of their senior year theater project in 1988. I can't locate any statistics on how many schools have performed the play, but I can tell you it was, and is, still very popular choice.
In Her Own Words
Meet The Family
There is so much to tell you about this wonderful lady. She had the most deadpan sense of humor which came through in her writing, but audiences didn't fully appreciate it until she started to hit the public speaking circuit when she was in her late 60's.
She was much sought after as a guest speaker who kept alive her grandfather's stories in the Yiddish community. She had only to relay one funny or philosophical story, end it with an Yiddish idiom and it would make the newspaper's morning edition.
To be able to do Bel's biography any justice at all, I have to tell you a little about her impressive family tree.
Bel with her grandfather around age 4
Sholem Aleichem - Author of "Tevye the Dairyman"
Bel's Grandfather,Yiddish Author Sholem Aleichem
Bel's grandfather was Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, better known under his pseudonym as Yiddish author and playwright Sholem Aleichem, was born in 1859 to a wealthy Russian merchant and his wife.
Sholem was considered the "Jewish Mark Twain" of his day. He became famous for writing the "Tevye the Dairyman" stories, which later became the foundation for the 1939 movie "Fiddler On The Roof."
The Russian Revolution was causing many citizens to relocate, so Sholem Aleichem moved to New York City in America to seek his fortune where the streets were said to be paved in gold. He was only able to afford passage for himself, so his wife and six children went to live in Geneva Switzerland. After two years of not being able to support two households, he moved back to Geneva to be with them.
He never enjoyed great wealth, but he certainly enjoyed life. He died at age 57.
Until her death at age 103, his granddaughter Bel Kaufman kept his memory alive with a memorial foundation which was run by her husband. She held many speaking engagements featuring the reading his work, as per his will. Without his "Dairyman" stories, there would have been no story of a fiddler.
Short Clips from documentary about Sholem Aleichem
Death Notice for Bel's Mother
"Mrs. Lala Kaufman, a writer and the eldest daughter of Sholem Aleichem, who was called the Yiddish Mark Twain, died December 24, 1964 at Beth-Israel Hospital. The wife of Dr. Michael J. Kaufman, she was 77 years old and lived at 215 West 88th Street, New York."
Michael & Lala Kaufman
Bella Kaufman's mother was Sholem's oldest daughter, Lyalya Rabinowitz Kaufman. Her birth name was Sarah Rabinowitz, but she was called Lala by the family. Lala was born in 1887 in Belaya Tserkov, near Kiev.
In 1909, she married Michael Kaufman (pronounced Kowf-man), a Russian pre-med student. Originally spelled Mikhail Y. Koyfman, my research shows that there is not much written about Bel's father.
While he was studying medicine at university in Berlin, Germany, Bella Kaufman was born on May 10, 1911. In 1920, Lala and Michael welcomed the birth of a son they named Sherwin. Like his father, he became a physician, practiced medicine in New York until his retirement in the 1980s and as of this writing, he still resides in New York at the age of 94.
Immigrating to the United States, her father took the New Jersey state medical board examinations and he was granted a medical license which was only valid in New Jersey so they made their home there. When he died in 1938, Lala moved to New York City to be closer to her [now grown] children.
Lala became an author in her own right with over two thousand essays and short stories written in Yiddish. Her vignettes appeared every Monday in the Yiddish language newspaper, Jewish Daily Forward. It was a success she enjoyed until her death. She spent much of her life translating texts from Yiddish and English into Russian and from Russian into English and Yiddish.
However, Lala's successes always seemed to be overshadowed in her life (and even in her obituary, see sidebar) for being known as the daughter of author Sholem Aleichem.
In September 1957, when her father had been dead over 40 years, Lala wrote a memoir about him for Commentary Magazine. It gives a peek into their life in the Ukraine when she was growing up. It is an interesting look at her father's aspirations for her and you can read it here.
Lala Kaufman never lived to see the success of her daughter's book "Up The Down Staircase." She died on Christmas Eve, 1964.
Short clip talking about her writing life
Education And Career
While Michael Kaufman worked at his medical practice, Lala often took Bel and her brother Sherwin on the short ferry ride from Newark to New York City to visit her family.
Newark was quite a nice place in the 1920s, and not the rough and tumble inner city as portrayed in movies and seen nowadays on the nightly news reports.
For families who didn't speak English, Newark was an excellent training ground to learn the language. Its close proximity to New York City meant you either spoke English with a New York accent, or you spoke New York with a Russian accent. Either way, your work was cut out for you to communicate with others.
At around age 9, Bella's first poem was published in an Odessa magazine entitled "Spring." It was all she needed to build her future aspirations to write essays and short stories. All of her writing was in Russian, her native language, although she was fluent in Russian and Yiddish languages which she continued to speak her whole life.
When Bella shortened her first name to Bel in order to get her short story "La Tigresse" published by the all male-authored Esquire Magazine, her family also referred to her as such.
She often said languages were easy for her to learn, but as a child, she found that English didn't come easy for her when she started to attend school in the United States. At age 11, the American public school system placed her with much younger first graders of ages six and seven because of her poor language skills. She soon learned the English language and she applauds her wonderful teachers for making her want to become a teacher herself.
Bel went on to graduate from Hunter College in 1934 with a Bachelor's Degree, and in 1936 from Columbia University with a Master's Degree. She wanted to get right to work as a teacher, but she failed the oral exam with the New York City Board of Examiners. Her Russian accent was just too thick, even though she had a good command of the English language by that time. Until she passed the exam, she did substitute teaching work which didn't require a teaching certificate.
When she finally did pass the exam, teaching in the New York City school system was just the right fodder to incorporate into her hobby - writing short stories.
Bel Kaufman didn’t use her book as a soapbox nor did she write it as a dark tale. Although a work of fiction, she expertly told how it was - from the teacher and from the student viewpoint. "Up The Down Staircase" became an excellent literary work where much is just as true today as it was in 1964.
Bel at a 2013 book signing
In 1936, Bel married Dr. Sidney Goldstine, right after her graduation from Columbia University. While teaching in a New York high school, all along she kept submitting articles and stories to magazines and periodicals.
During the 1940s, the couple welcomed the birth of a daughter, Thea and a son, Jonathan. The couple divorced in 1961.
In the 1970s, Bel married political analyst and educator, Sidney Gluck, who was six years her junior. He is quite a character and his website at the link is interesting. He also runs the Sholem Aleichem Memorial Foundation.
After "Up The Down Staircase," Bel wrote a second novel, "Love, Etc.," which did not enjoy much success. Never flagging, her sense of humor was much sought after and she always had something funny to say about everyday situations. Up until her death, she continued to be a popular lecturer and speaker, talking about school conditions, education and the arts. Her most asked about topic was her famous grandfather.
In 2011, a filmmaker decided to make a documentary titled "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing In The Darkness." Bel loved it and it met critical acclaim. From then on, interest in her grandfather's work was renewed the likes of which hadn't been seen since his death. Her grandfather was on top again after all these years.
To her own credit, Bel received numerous honorary awards through her lifetime, and until her late 90's was an avid tango dancer! In 2010, at the age of 100, she began teaching a course in Jewish humor at Hunter college, her alma mater.
Bel is survived by her husband Sidney Gluck (age 97), her brother, retired Dr. Sherwin Kaufman (age 94), her daughter Thea Goldstine, a doctor of psychology in California; her son, Jonathan Goldstine, a retired Penn State College computer science professor in Pennsylvania and one granddaughter, Susan Goldstine, a mathematics teacher in New York.
Bel with second husband Sidney Gluck
Interview: Just wait until you are 100 years old!
This grand lady was a joy to research and as happens with most of my subjects, I regret never having had the chance to meet Bel. She was quite a character in humor and personality, and I am proud to have given you a glimpse into her life with this biography.
Do Not Copy
© Rachael O'Halloran, August 2014
© 2014 Rachael O'Halloran