This past Friday, Bel Kaufman passed away at 103. She was the grande dame of the Upper East Side, a former schoolteacher, author of the 60s classic Up the Down Staircase—and the granddaughter of celebrated Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. Kaufman was born on May 10, 1911, in Berlin, and spent her childhood in my own home city of Odessa. After the family was forced to flee during the Russian Revolution, they settled in the Bronx in 1923, when Kaufman was 12 years old. She studied education at Hunter College, graduated in 1934, then obtained a master’s degree in English from Columbia University, ultimately launching her successful literary career while serving as a substitute teacher.
Two years ago, I was in the middle of making a documentary film about my husband’s family friend, the great Russian-born Jewish violinist Nina Beilina. Bel, active to the last, kindly agreed to appear in a crucial scene with Nina and spent the afternoon with us.
She ushered us into her resplendent Park Avenue penthouse and announced that she had put on a purple scarf and matching sunglasses for us (“Pucci not Gucci!” she insisted). We talked about my native Odessa, which she remembered before the revolution. Her editor was waiting in a different room to discuss issuing an ebook version of her book. She and Nina chatted about their Russian friends and recited poetry in unison.
At one point, Bel asked Nina if she had seen a recent film about her grandfather, Sholem Aleichem, and what she had thought of it. “Oh I liked it,” Nina replied. “What did you think Bel?’’
“Oh, I liked it too,” Kaufman replied languidly, “because I am young and beautiful in it.”
She will always be young and beautiful.
Watch a clip of her from the documentary below, in which she discusses the benefits of being 100 years old: