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Bel Kaufman


If you know anything about Bel Kaufman, you know the following two facts. She wrote Up the Down Staircase, and she was the granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem (Yiddish writer, Fiddler on the Roof, etc.). If you're me, you know a third. My 103-year-old aunt, Ruth Gruber, also a writer, was her oldest friend, and I'm pretty sure Ruth is delighted to have survived her.

Bel Kaufman was born in Berlin, but grew up in Odessa. The Russian Revolution took care of their secure place in society. They fled to the Bronx, where Bel, like so many immigrant children before and since, made the most of what was offered. Hunter College, magna cum laude, in 1934, and a master's degree in English from Columbia University in 1936. She loved studying education but had a hard time finding work in the schools because of her Russian accent. She did, eventually, and the rest is history.

I remember being enthralled with Up the Down Staircase when I read it a few years after it was published. Written in epistolary form, it told the story of life in the NYC public school system. I had just moved from the suburbs to the city and was part of it myself, and my experience has turned out to be one of the most exciting times of my life. Her experience, fictionalized at Calvin Coolidge High School, was maddeningly bureaucratic, touching, and hilarious. The film, directed by the wonderful Robert Mulligan, made it even better. She had a very long life, and she got, thanks to Margalit Fox, the obituary she deserved. What more can you ask.


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