Chester Higgins/New York Times
Yesterday I was leafing through the new August issue of Vogue magazine. It’s the “Age Issue” which annually features, as they put it in a cover line: ” Wonder Women from 28 to 101.”
I was thrilled to find an article by Bel Kaufman who is, in fact, 101, and to learn that she’s as witty and wise and defiant of the status quo as ever.
Long ago, when I was starting out as a “career girl” in New York, I read and loved her book “Up the Down Staircase” -- published in 1965 when Bel was in her fifties. It was a thinly disguised saga of her experiences in defying bureaucracy when she taught high school in New York, and it spent 64 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
Bel Kaufman is a granddaughter of the Yiddish storyteller Sholem Aleichem, whose stories formed the basis of “Fiddler on the Roof”. She went on after the success of "Staircase" to become a much-in-demand speaker who specialized in the subject of Jewish humor. In fact last year, when the New York Times interviewed her about her 100th birthday, she was teaching a course about Jewish humor at Hunter College, her alma mater.
I was overjoyed to learn yesterday that Ms. Kaufman at 101—thirty years older than I am—is still teaching and writing and sharing her wisdom with women born a century after her. As she explained to both the Times and Vogue, she was born in Odessa, Russia, was a child in Moscow during the Russian Revolution, and her family was persecuted because they were Jews. Food was scarce and as she said, bodies lay in the streets frozen in odd positions. “But a child has no basis for comparison. Doesn’t every child step over dead bodies? I didn’t know any different.”
Her family left Russia for New York when she was twelve (and she was placed in first grade because she didn’t speak English.) Bel grew up being passionate about poetry, which she reads in Russian, English, French and German. She got her master’s degree in English and comparative literature at Columbia and decided she wanted to teach at the high school rather than the college level because “I felt that college students were already finished—I would be of no great influence to them. I wanted to show high schoolers, for whom I could still make some difference, the joy in reading and writing and learning, before the malaise of later life.”
Bel is now writing a book about her grandfather, Sholom Aleichem, inspired by a letter he wrote to her when she was a child. Personally, I can’t wait to read it.
I hereby designate Bel Kaufman not Crone of the Week (a title I haven’t bestowed lately) but Crone of the Year—perhaps the decade. And for those of you who don’t read Vogue, I want to quote a couple of paragraphs from her August article on the subject of teaching and of being old.
“Not too long ago, I was speaking at a retirement luncheon at the United Federation of Teachers in New York City and it was as if I was back in college, speaking to those seven-year-olds again. I told the teachers that while they may think they are retiring, they are not. I can tell you, you are always a teacher.You remain alive in thousands of memories and thousands of minds of people you have taught, “ I said. “It’s a kind of immortality.”…
“I’ve lived a long time, a very long time, 101 years, and I’m still here. I’m done with the doubts and struggles and insecurities of youth. I’m finished with loss and guilt and regret. I’m very old, and nothing is expected of me. Now, provided good health continues, I can do what I want. I can write my memoirs. I can edit my works for future eBooks. I can even do nothing—what a luxury that is! I have new priorities and a new appreciation of time. I enjoy my family more than ever, and also a sunny day and a comfortable bed. I keep up my interest in books and theater and people, and when I’m tired, I rest. My former students write to me and visit me. I had many problems and disasters in my life; fortunately at my age, I don’t remember what they were. I’m glad I am 101.”