Bel Kaufman published her first poem, a paean to spring, as a 7-year-old in Odessa. It was four lines long, signed Belochka Koifman, in a Russian children’s magazine. When she was 11, she began a drama, and wrote 60 pages describing the characters in a notebook that she carried with her when the family moved to New York later that year, and which she kept through her life. Everyone in her family wrote: her mother Lyalya published stories; her father, a physician, was a poet and translator; and her grandfather, who wrote many letters to her, was the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem.
When Kaufman died last week at age 103, she was praised for her long and celebrated literary career, as the author of a major bestseller, “Up the Down Staircase,” about life in an urban high school, and also for her public role as the keeper of her grandfather’s memory. She was an indefatigable diplomat-at-large for the writer, considered one of the giants of modern Yiddish literature; his stories became the basis for “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Just over two months ago, Kaufman spoke at the annual yahrtzeit gathering for her grandfather. In his will, Sholem Aleichem requested that on his yahrtzeit friends and family members gather to read his most humorous stories — he wanted to be remembered with laughter, or not at all. Each year, the family invites actors to read stories, some in Yiddish and, increasingly, in English translation. At the conclusion, Kaufman — the last living person to have known Sholem Aleichem — reminisced.
That was the last public appearance of a woman who loved going out and was highly visible in the city’s Jewish cultural life. She had the gift of presence, with a deep voice, precise diction in her second language of English and the innate ability to tell a story and engage her audience, whether an individual or a crowd of thousands. In fact, after publishing “Up the Down Staircase,” she became a speaker-in-demand on subjects of education and personal motivation, and later on Jewish culture and humor. With her oversize jewelry, curls piled on top of her head and erect posture even in the four-inch heels she still favored in her 11th decade, she had the bearing of a Russian baroness.
Kaufman came to America from Odessa in 1922, six years after her grandfather’s death. Knowing no English, she was placed with much younger first graders, and recalls the kindness of her first teacher, which inspired her own desire to teach. After attending Hunter College, she taught in the city schools for more than 30 years before writing the short story that would become her 1965 semi-autobiographical novel about an idealistic young teacher. Even the funniest parts, Kaufman explained, were written through tears: She was divorced, and her mother was dying of cancer.
Over the years, she was very generous with writers and researchers. Alisa Solomon, who spoke with Kaufman for her recent book, “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof,” recounted that Kaufman was really pleased when some reviewers said that that she “wears the mantle well” and compared her use of humor to her grandfather’s. Kaufman also told Solomon that she loved “Fiddler” and thought that her grandfather would have loved it too.”
Sometimes people would confuse her grandfather’s fiction with his life, and ask Bel questions like, which one of Tevye’s daughters was her mother.
“She was an indomitable soul,” filmmaker Joseph Dorman recalled. When his film “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” — in which she appears — came out, she was approaching 100 years old, and spoke at many screenings, never rattled by a single question.
“It remained very important to her to carry on and promote Sholem Aleichem’s legacy,” he said, adding, “She was a grand dame, and also very humble, with the earthy Jewish qualities of her grandfather. It made for an interesting mix.”
Jeffrey Shandler, chair of the Jewish Studies department at Rutgers University, recalled attending the memorial gathering when it was held in Bel’s Park Avenue apartment. She’d joke that it was “the hottest ticket in town” because her crowded apartment got toasty in May.
“It was an event like no other, and an invitation to attend was highly prized,” he said. The stories were “wildly hilarious — not only the texts themselves, but the readers, who included stars of both the Yiddish and English-language stage who knew how to make the most of the material, which was written to be realized in live performance — something Sholem Aleichem himself had done throughout Europe and the United States in the last years of his life. These were magical evenings, bringing a particular kind of Yiddish histrionic storytelling into full flower.”
Many point out that for her deep involvement in Yiddish culture, Kaufman didn’t know Yiddish.
Throughout their lives, Bel and her brother Sherwin, nine years her junior, spoke Russian to each other. Even in these last months, when she couldn’t speak on the phone, they would email each other in phonetic Russian, so that a non-Russian speaker could read the notes to her and then draft replies.
In 1999, Bel and Sherwin, a retired physician who is a musician, songwriter and poet, and other family members traveled back to Odessa, invited by the government of Ukraine, for a Sholem Aleichem festival on the 140th anniversary of his birth. Kenneth Kaufman, an entertainment lawyer in Washington, D.C., and Sherwin’s son, said that they attended productions of Sholem Aleichem’s work, and that Bel was treated like a celebrity, interviewed on television and followed everywhere by cameras.
In a reminiscence of that trip, Bel wrote that all who were left of old Odessa Jewry gathered to meet her, with questions, speeches and even a copy of her first-published poem. “They poured out their love for Sholem Aleichem, and it spilled over on me,” she wrote. To her surprise, many had read “Up the Down Staircase” in Ukrainian translation and many non-Jews were familiar with her grandfather’s work. Earlier, Bel had made other trips at the invitation of the Soviet Writer’s Union in 1968 and of Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev in 1987.
Through her 90s, Kaufman kept up a routine of ballroom dancing twice a week. She danced with grace and more than a little dramatic flair, and she and Sidney, her husband of 40 years, especially liked to tango. She chalked up her high energy and good health to good luck.
Many people who live as long as she did would have outlived their friends, but Bel’s circle of friends were of mixed ages, many decades younger. Three days after her death, a small group of friends and family gathered in New York City. Margo Berdeshevsky traveled the furthest, flying in from Paris.
Kaufman was Berdeshevsky’s teacher at the High School for Performing Arts and also a friend of her mother’s. She remembers Kaufman sitting on the edge of her desk, with her legs crossed, and that she was very sexy. “She never lost that.”
“One day she told me that she had a dream, that she had written Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘Because I could not stop for Death.’ I asked, ‘Are you afraid of dying?’ and she grabbed my hand and said, ‘No, not really.’ What she was trying to say was that she was afraid of not having her full faculties. As long as she had that, she was in her full power and magnificence.
“My personal heart’s farewell was to visualize her dipping in the tango, and doing a high back kick all the way through the tunnels of light.”
As per her wishes, Bel Kaufman’s ashes were to be sprinkled around her grandfather’s grave, in Mount Carmel cemetery in Queens. Along with her daughter and brother, she is survived by a son, her husband, and granddaughter. The woman who made grand entrances and exits will be remembered at a memorial service in the fall. At that time, the words of her grandfather will echo. “When the heart is full,” Sholem Aleichem wrote in “Das Groise Gevins” (1895), “the eyes overflow.”