By Harriet P. Gross
Christmas seems an appropriate day to remember and honor a Jewish writer whose grandfather, through his own writing, has brought understanding of shtetl life to millions of gentile Americans.
Bel Kaufman, author of the 1965 smash hit novel “Up the Down Staircase,” died in July at age 103. Her mother, born Lala Rabinowitz and a prolific short-story writer for the Yiddish press, was a daughter of the great Sholem Aleichem, author of many stories that culminated in the fame-insuring “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Bel (actually named Belle; she later shortened it to something less feminine, since in her time women writers weren’t always taken seriously) grew up in Odessa, which she later called, somewhat romantically, “a city of poets and sailors, merchants and musicians, Jewish intellectuals and exotic strangers from beyond the Black Sea.” But the Russian Revolution forced the family to flee, and they landed in the Bronx when she was 12. Since she spoke no English, Bel also landed in a public school class of first-graders.
A course in education when she was a Hunter College undergraduate captured Bel’s imagination; after getting her master’s degree in English at Columbia in 1936, she applied to teach in New York, but because she still retained her accent, she was only allowed to substitute for several years until finally earning her license. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade: it was the part-time experience in many different city high schools that gave her the material for the book that spent more than a year on The New York Times best-seller list.
“Up the Down Staircase” began as a short story told through the notations and memos of a young teacher like Bel in a high school like many of the ones she had subbed in. Her introduction to 1991’s new edition of the book began “One morning, a boy came to class three months late. I greeted him with a feeble joke: ‘Welcome back! What happened? Did you rob a bank?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘A grocery store.’”
There were some rejections before the Saturday Review finally published Bel’s story, with the title “From a Teacher’s Wastebasket.” She was paid $200 for the story and it resulted in a Prentice Hall editor asking her to make a book out of it.
I must say here, after thanking New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox — whom I’ve also cited in a recent column about the death of ancient language researcher Alice Kober — for making much of the above information easily accessible, that I had my own personal experience with Bel Kaufman back in1979. It was a literary high point in my life, but an unfortunately negative encounter.
As a columnist for a suburban Chicago newspaper, I was thrilled beyond words when a reader who worked for Prentice Hall invited me to attend a downtown reception for Ms. Kaufman, honoring the publication of her second novel. (Sadly, “Love, Etc.,” based on another slice of the author’s life, this time about the experiences of a middle-aged woman going through divorce, never rose to the level of her first offering.) I was so over-awed at the chance to shake the best-selling author’s hand that I thanked her profusely for writing “Blackboard Jungle,” Evan Hunter’s 1954, much less humorous — to the say the least! — commentary on teachers and violence at an inner-city school. That book launched a writing career for Hunter much more successful than Kaufman’s ever was, although both his debut novel and hers became important films. To say the very least, she was not pleased!
My face still reddens when I think of my faux pas, even 35 years later; it’s a kind of embarrassment that will never fade from my memory. I also remember that it was the woman who had invited me to this event who reminded me, not too gently afterward, that the word “ass” is aptly imbedded in the action as well as the word “embarrass”!