Meet Bel Kaufman: She Wrote What She Knew

Educator and writer Bel Kaufman (1911-2014).

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. 

In 1930, she entered Hunter College, commuting daily to its concrete campus like other “subway scholars.”  Despite their high academic achievements, to college officials these women seemed unrefined in both manners and appearance...To correct their social ineptitude, the school mandated courses in grooming, hygiene, and health, in which they were informed, among other advice, that bagels were nutritionally unsound.

Bel Kaufman gravitated to courses in English and French.  Inspired by the high standards of her teachers, whom she credited for her own love of literature, she graduated magna cum laude in 1934, a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After college she went on to Columbia University for a master’s in English, specializing in eighteenth-century literature.

But it was a course in education at Hunter that set the direction of her career; when she found herself in front of a class of eager youngsters as a student teacher, she felt she had discovered her métier.  Still, she might have gone into journalism if her mother had not insisted, like so many other Depression era immigrant mothers, that “even if you marry, you must have a profession,” and teaching was the most secure.

To receive a New York City teaching license, however, Kaufman had to submit to a rigorous written examination (which she passed with flying colors) and undergo an even more grueling oral interview.  She was required to speak articulately and grammatically, without any vulgarisms or foreignisms... 

...Kaufman remembers waiting outside the Board of Examiners’ hearing room, in a cold sweat, as one after another of the candidates staggered out, often in tears...The examiners fixed me with their collective eye, asked if I were born in this country, [and] then had me pronounce some very difficult sentences.”  Although she took numerous speech courses, she failed the test three times [before passing] on the fourth try...

To pass, however, candidates also had to interpret a piece of literature.  Kaufman received negative grades on her reading of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Euclid Alone,” and failed the test again.  This time she fought back, sending the Board of Examiners affidavits from her professors testifying to her literary skills, as well as a letter from Edna St. Vincent Millay herself, to whom she had sent a copy of her analysis of the poem.  Millay wrote to the examiners that Kaufman’s interpretation was extraordinarily perceptive.  Yet...the examiners voted her down once again.  The following year, perhaps because they had had enough of her, Kaufman passed the orals and received her teaching license.

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Kaufman began teaching in the mid-1930s; her career lasted some twenty-five years and took her to fourteen different public high schools in all parts of New York City.  Although she taught for many years at the High School of the Performing Arts, her formative years in the profession were spent in less selective neighborhood schools where she had to deal with sullen, unmotivated adolescents.  Her attempt to make a difference in the lives of those students, coupled with her often hilarious encounters with local and downtown school bureaucracies, became the life experience that shaped Up the Down Staircase.

Published in 1964, Staircase was a national best-seller.  With over six million copies in print, the book has by now gone through forty-seven editions and been translated into sixteen languages.  Time magazine called it “easily the most popular novel about U.S. public schools in history.”  It was made into a hit movie in 1967.

...Kaufman engages her readers’ sympathy with the portraits of lost, unmotivated teens, committed if frustrated teachers, and a rigid, irrelevant bureaucracy.  “Please admit bearer to class,” runs the principal’s note from which the book gets it title.  “Detained by me for going Up the Down stairway and subsequent insolence.”

...She wrote only sporadically during her teaching career, and had long felt inferior to the members of the literary clan into which she was born. With the success of Staircase, however, Kaufman felt she could claim her family heritage.  She finds similarities between her writing and her grandfather’s—a sympathy for ordinary citizens, interest in social reform, a tone of wit and irony.  Like her grandfather, she considers her writing a kind of Jewish humor, which she describes as “laughter with tears, turning the table in tragedy and snubbing disaster.”


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How to cite this page

Antler, Joyce. "Meet Bel Kaufman: She Wrote What She Knew." 18 March 2013. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 22, 2024) <>.