This Week in History


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

January 27, 1965
Kaufman, Bel 2 - still image [media]
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Born with the given name of "Belle," Bel Kaufman became the first woman to publish in Esquire magazine with a byline by changing the spelling of her name on the assumption that the editors would think she was a man. The strategy worked, and she has gone by the name Bel ever since.

Institution: Private collection

When Bel Kaufman published Up the Down Staircase on January 27, 1965, she was already a published writer, whose short stories had appeared in magazines like Esquire and The Saturday Review. Because Esquire in the early 1940s had refused to publish fiction by women, Belle Kaufman had submitted her work under the androgynous first name "Bel," and has published under that name ever since.

Born in Germany and raised in Russia, Kaufman came to the U.S. at age 12. She is the granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem, and her mother Lyalya Kaufman was a regular columnist for the Yiddish Forverts. Bel graduated magna cum laude from Hunter College at age 22. After earning a master's degree at Columbia, Kaufman taught in the New York City public schools for three decades. Her experiences there were the inspiration for Up the Down Staircase.

The novel uses a series of memos, directives, student comments, teachers' notes, and various materials drawn from school wastepaper baskets to detail a new idealistic teacher's encounters with the administrative bureaucracy of an inner-city school. The book spent 64 weeks on the best-seller list. It has been translated into 16 languages, and has sold 6.5 million copies. Time magazine has called it "easily the most popular novel about U.S. public schools in history." The book was made into a 1967 film starring Sandy Dennis and into a stage play a decade later.

Bel Kaufman will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Jewish Women's Archive at its annual luncheon on March 10, 2013.

To learn more about Bel Kaufman, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.

See also: Bel Kaufman in the Virtual Archive.

Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 727-730; advancement/ publicrelations/ news/ 2001/ 182ndcommencemt/ 182ndcommencemt.html; New York Times, December 16, 1964, pg. 40; visitor/ article_display.aspx?articleID=731.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Publication of Bel Kaufman's "Up the Down Staircase"." (Viewed on April 16, 2014) <>.