Bel Kaufman, best known for her novel Up the Down Staircase and its subsequent film, was born in Berlin, Germany, on May 10, 1911. She is the granddaughter of the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (on whose work the musical Fiddler on the Roof is based). Having spent her early childhood in Odessa and Moscow, she considers Russia to be her true home and Russian her native language. Her parents, Michael J. Kaufman, a physician, and Lyalya Kaufman, a writer and Sholem Aleichem’s daughter, were both native Russians. In December 1923, they immigrated to the United States with their twelve-year-old daughter to escape the hardships of postrevolutionary Russia.
When the family arrived in New York City, the young Kaufman did not speak a word of English. She was taken to the local public school by her mother, who knew no more English than she did. Kaufman was enrolled in a first-grade class with children half her age and felt immensely awkward. Her uneasiness was appeased by the kindness of her teacher, which had a profound effect upon the twelve-year-old: She decided that she too wanted to be a teacher.
Kaufman’s education progressed quickly, graduating magna cum laude from Hunter College in January 1934. That same year she married Sidney Goldstine, from whom she was divorced in the 1960s. They had two children, Jonathan and Thea. Kaufman went on to complete her master’s degree in literature at Columbia University, graduating in 1936 with highest honors. At Columbia, she was offered a doctoral fellowship, which she had to decline because she intended to support her husband in medical school. After her graduation, Kaufman began a teaching career in New York City public schools, which spanned three decades and inspired Up the Down Staircase.
Kaufman began writing and publishing her short stories in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In its early life, Esquire was considered a gentlemen’s magazine exclusively; it did not publish writing by women. When Kaufman wrote a short story in the early 1940s entitled “La Tigresse” about a femme fatale, her agent suggested that it would be perfect for Esquire if not for the unfortunate fact that she was a female writer. They decided to submit the story anyway, but not before shortening her real first name, Belle, to the more androgynous Bel. The short story was published in Esquire, and Kaufman has used the name ever since.
Up the Down Staircase was originally a short story—only three and a half pages long—published in The Saturday Review on November 17, 1962. Gladys Justin Carr, then an editor at Prentice-Hall, contacted Kaufman after reading it and encouraged her to extend her fledgling story into a full-length novel. Kaufman’s efforts resulted in what Time magazine would call “easily the most popular novel about U.S. public schools in history.”
The novel offers a portrait of a young teacher who shares much of Kaufman’s iconoclastic spirit. It chronicles the career of Sylvia Barrett, a new teacher in the public school system, and offers an incisive and humorous portrait of the interaction between teachers and students in public school. It is also a satirical look at the administrative bureaucracy teachers must overcome in order to perform their jobs. The novel was released in 1964 and spent sixty-four weeks as a best-seller, of which five months were spent in the number-one position. Up the Down Staircase was translated into sixteen languages and has sold over six million copies.
Up the Down Staircase became such a success that in 1967 a film was made based on the novel, starring Sandy Dennis and directed by Robert Mulligan. Kaufman, who served as a consultant on the film, was given a brief cameo as one of the teachers punching in with Sylvia Barrett. The film opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and was chosen to represent the United States at the Moscow Film Festival (where its title translated into Up the Staircase Leading Down). In June 1977, Up the Down Staircase became a play and a popular choice for many public school drama productions.
Kaufman’s contributions to social awareness continued well beyond the reach of her famous book. On December 7, 1987, Kaufman accepted an invitation from the Soviet embassy to join Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev as his guest at a reception held for prominent Americans. During this same year, she participated in the Moscow International Forum for a Nuclear-Free World at the invitation of the Soviet Union. There she delivered a speech on “The Role of Culture in Protecting Civilization and Universal Human Values.”
In her later career, Kaufman has been involved in theatrical writing and lecturing, and is a popular public speaker. In the 1970s, she married Sidney Gluck, who heads the Sholem Aleichem Memorial Foundation, where she is an honorary chair. The foundation was created to commemorate her grandfather and the world of Yiddish literature.
Bel Kaufman is the recipient of many awards, including UJA, ADL, and Bonds for Israel plaques, the Paperback of the Year Award, and the National School Bell Award. Bel Kaufman’s great legacy is in the literature about education in America and in the propagation of Jewish culture. Her life’s work is a poignant reminder of the struggles and dedication necessary in the search for knowledge.
Abroad in America (1976); Love, etc. (1979); Up the Down Staircase (1964).