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An Afternoon With Bel Kaufman

Monday, December 3, 2012

 Interview by Erika Wilder Photos by Ari Seth Cohen
Ari and I recently had the pleasure of visiting with Bel Kaufman, celebrated teacher, author, and speaker—and granddaughter to Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish writer on whose stories Fiddler on the Roof was based. As a poet and writer, I was honored to tag along and meet her.

Ms. Kaufman made a striking first impression, welcoming us into her home with warmth, radiance, and a great pair of sunglasses. One of the first things Ms. Kaufman says with pride, when introducing herself, is, “In a few months I’ll be 102 years old.”
Upon looking at Advanced Style the book, Kaufman says, ““They’re wonderful-looking women with styles that vary.” She describes her own style philosophy as being a “very personal” thing, and that she favors a balance between a tailored and a feminine look. “I used to live in spike heels!” Kaufman reminisces. “Students remember me running up the stairs at school in stilettos.”

Kaufman cites the publishing of her first book, the 1965 best-seller Up The Down Staircase, and her subsequent career as a public speaker, as helping to reveal her identity: “I really didn’t know who I was for a long time—daughter, mother, teacher, writer—but that’s changed now. It helped me recognize who I was.” Confidence, it seems, is key to Kaufman’s vitality, and she will happily admit: 
 “I do consider myself a good teacher and a good speaker.”

One of the first things I had noticed in Bel’s apartment was her extensive library of Nabokov books (in both English and Russian), and we discovered she & I share a favorite writer. Excited to also discover our shared interest in poetry, Bel recited Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, and Auden’s Stop All The Clocks on the spot, in their entirety, off the top of her head. “I like to recite them in my head as I’m waiting for a bus,” she says.
 
Another of Bel’s passions—and no doubt one of the keys to her energy—has always been dance. “I love dancing. The tango—especially the Argentine tango—is a very sexy dance. Imagine feeling sexy at my age!” She says. “But I do.”

I tell Bel that my mom has always told me that she never feels any different inside, no matter how much she ages—something I haven’t heard many other women say. “I know just what she means,” Bel says, and on the topic of aging goes on to say, “I so enjoy being old because for the first time I don’t have to do anything—work, teach, study. I feel very good about myself—and at my age I can say no to anything now if I don’t want to do it. What a liberating word.”
About her lovely teeth, Kaufman notes, “One is half-false, and all the rest are mine—they don’t fall out.”Kaufman came to the US from Russia at age twelve, and has been a New Yorker ever since, save for a brief period in Newark, New Jersey during her high school years, after which she “raced back to New York City” as soon as she could.

And in a moment of beautiful coincidence as Ms. Kaufman was explaining to us her academic career, Ari realized that she had gotten her Master’s in literature at Columbia during the same years that Ari’s own grandmother was earning her Master’s degree there.

Bel recalls renting a room on Lexington for $4.50 a week in the early 1920s: “I wrote funny stories about my landlady.” Some of Bel’s short stories will be out in two new collections this winter: Le Tigress Other Stories (fiction) and This and That (non-fiction).

As we were leaving the apartment, Bel insisted that I choose a book I haven’t read from her Nabokov collection to take with me, as a gift. A book and an afternoon that I’ll hang on to for a long time.