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Bel Kaufman

Do Not Show This to Bel Kaufman

After Bel Kaufman, writer and public school teacher, published Up the Down Staircase in 1965, one assistant principal at a school where she had taught began adding a warning to his memos: “DO NOT SHOW THIS TO BEL KAUFMAN.” The disclaimer is a testament to what a nerve Kaufman hit with her novel, which followed a young teacher through her first year in an urban public school and highlighted the insane bureaucracy that got in the way of actual teaching. 

Bel Kaufman

Bel Kaufman used her experiences as a public school teacher as fodder for her bestselling novel, Up the Down Staircase.

Meet Bel Kaufman: She Wrote What She Knew

Adapted from The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America, by Joyce Antler (Schocken Books, 1997). 

Bel Kaufman, the daughter of East European immigrants and granddaughter of Yiddish novelist Sholom Aleichem, emigrated from Odessa with her family in 1923 when she was twelve, quickly learned English, and used the public libraries voraciously. 

Troublemaking is an Unpredictable Sport

 “When women talk about their accomplishments, it’s a signal to others to stop liking them,” said Rachel Sklar. “For men, success correlates with positive feelings. Women want to be well liked, they don’t want to rock the boat. We have to support our troublemakers.”

Publication of Bel Kaufman's "Up the Down Staircase"

January 27, 1965

Publication of "Up the Down Staircase," a best-selling novel written by Bel Kaufman, a granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem. It was later made into a popular film.

Hunter College

Long known as the “Jewish Girls’ Radcliffe,” Hunter College of the City University of New York was founded in 1870 as the Normal College of the City of New York. It was a public, tuition-free secondary and teacher-training school that admitted students solely on the basis of academic merit, determined by competitive examination, and by residency in the city. Over the years, it became a haven for academically advanced students unable to afford more costly schools or to gain admission to institutions with more restrictive admissions criteria. Women who were considered “socially undesirable”—African Americans, Catholics, and Jews, especially those from Eastern Europe—attended Hunter in disproportionate numbers. Hunter’s student body, therefore, differed significantly from that of other women’s colleges in America. From 1900 to the end of World War II, decades when many institutions of higher education implemented policies of selective admissions specifically designed to deflect minority students, Hunter gladly welcomed these same women. Hunter educated scores of intellectually gifted and professionally talented women whose skills and achievements amply repaid the city’s largesse.

Bel Kaufman

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).

Fiction, Popular in the United States

The explosion of writing by American Jewish women in the twentieth century has produced not only serious fiction, poetry, essays, and autobiography but also a range of popular literature geared to pleasure reading and light entertainment. Jewish women authors have experimented with many genres: regional novels, sagas, historical novels, romances, mysteries and crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and humor.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Bel Kaufman." (Viewed on December 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/taxonomy/term/10499>.

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