Obituary: Bel Kaufman / Told what school was really like

May 10, 1911 - July 25, 2014

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Bel Kaufman, a former New York City schoolteacher whose classic first novel, “Up the Down Staircase” — shot through with despair and hopefulness, violence and levity, all manner of bureaucratic inanity and a blizzard of official memorandums so mind-bendingly illogical as to seem almost Kafkaesque — was hailed as a stunningly accurate portrait of life in a gritty urban school when it was published in 1965, died Friday at her home in Manhattan. She was 103.

Her daughter, Thea Goldstine, confirmed the death.

First published by Prentice Hall, “Up the Down Staircase” spent more than a year on the New York Times best-seller list. It has sold more than 6 million copies and been translated into at least 16 languages. So fully has the novel entered the collective consciousness that its title is still used as a catchphrase to describe absurd or impossible situations.

“Up the Down Staircase” was made into a popular movie of the same name, released in 1967.

Directed by Robert Mulligan, it starred Sandy Dennis as Ms. Kaufman’s idealistic young teacher, Sylvia Barrett.

The book and movie made Ms. Kaufman a celebrity; for decades afterward, she was in demand as a speaker before educational and civic groups. She was also a highly visible public presence at events commemorating the work of the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, her maternal grandfather.

Ms. Kaufman wrote one other novel, “Love, Etc.,” about a middle-aged woman coping with divorce. It appeared in 1979 to mixed reviews.

Largely epistolary in structure, “Up the Down Staircase” is organized as a series of dispatches from the front as it follows Sylvia through her first year at Calvin Coolidge High, a fictitious yet all-too-real New York public school.

The narrative comprises Sylvia’s wistful letters to a college friend, now married and safely installed in the suburbs; bits of student papers (“We study myths like Orpheum & his girl friend because it takes place in the Greek Underground”); and messages left in the class suggestion box (“You’re a good teacher except for the rotten books you have to teach like the Oddissy. I wouldn’t give it to a dog to read”).

There is also the thicket of memos from school administrators, aptly described by Sylvia as “trivia-in-triplicate.”

“Dear Sir or Madam,” one directive reads. “In reply to your request for resignation, please be advised that yours was filled out improperly.” Others range over subjects such as “Lateness due to absence” and “Polio Consent slips.”

Amid the laughter, Ms. Kaufman’s book explored deeply serious issues, from classrooms with chronically broken windows and too few chairs to teenage pregnancy, trouble with the law and a student’s attempted suicide. The world of the novel, she often said, was based closely on her own experience as a teacher in New York City high schools.

Belle Kaufman was born May 10, 1911, in Berlin, where her father, Michael, was studying medicine.

Her mother, Lala Rabinowitz Kaufman, was the eldest daughter of Sholem Aleichem, whose well-loved stories of shtetl life were the basis of the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” Also a writer, Lala Kaufman later contributed thousands of short-short stories to The Jewish Daily Forward, the Yiddish-language newspaper in New York.

When Belle was very young, her family returned to their home in Odessa, in what is now Ukraine. The coming of the Russian Revolution in 1917 put the Kaufmans at grave risk. When Belle was 12, the family managed to leave for the United States.

They settled in the Bronx, where Belle, who spoke no English, was placed in a class of first-graders.

As an undergraduate at Hunter College, Ms. Kaufman enrolled by chance in an education class and was captivated. She graduated magna cum laude in 1934 and earned a master’s degree in English from Columbia University in 1936.

In order to obtain a municipal teaching license, Ms. Kaufman had to beard the monster then known as the New York City Board of Examiners. Year after year, she failed the board’s oral exam: The vestiges of her Russian accent, examiners told her, made her diction unworthy of a proper schoolteacher’s.

For several years until she got her regular license, Ms. Kaufman was relegated to substitute teaching in a string of New York City high schools, any one of which could have been Calvin Coolidge.

“One morning a boy came to class three months late,” Ms. Kaufman wrote in 1991, in her introduction to a new edition of “Up the Down Staircase.” “I greeted him with a feeble joke: ‘Welcome back! What happened? Did you rob a bank?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘A grocery store.’”

“Up the Down Staircase” came along, Ms. Kaufman said afterward, at a low point in her life. She was teaching, selling the occasional short story to magazines and “living alone in a tiny apartment with very little money or hope for the future,” as she wrote in 1991. (In the 1940s, in order to sell a story to Esquire, which took a dim view of submissions by women, she began signing her work with the more androgynous first name Bel.)

In 1961, Ms. Kaufman wrote a short story about a young teacher’s life, told through a pastiche of notes, memos and other scraps of paper. After several rejections, she sent it to Saturday Review, which published it in the Nov. 17, 1962, issue under the title “From a Teacher’s Wastebasket.” Ms. Kaufman received $200, less a $20 agent’s commission. The day the story was published, Gladys Justin Carr, an editor at Prentice Hall, asked her to turn it into a book.

Ms. Kaufman’s first marriage, to Sydney Goldstine, ended in divorce.

Besides her daughter, Thea, from her first marriage, survivors include her second husband, Sidney J. Gluck; a son from her first marriage, Jonathan Goldstine; a brother, Sherwin Kaufman; and a granddaughter.

United States - North America - New York City - New York - Eastern Europe - Europe - Ukraine - Odessa - Bel Kaufman - Robert Mulligan - Sandy Dennis

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