Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bel Kaufman

The Awesome Woman of the Day is *Bel Kaufman* (born May 10, 1911) who at 100 years old is still an active and teaching a course in Jewish Humor at Hunter College, her alma mater (in the City University of New York system).

Bel Kaufman is the granddaughter of the famous Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, described in a recent New York Times article about Kaufman as "a writer who was able to squeeze heartbreaking humor out of the most threadbare deprivation and wove the bittersweet Tevye stories that became the source for 'Fiddler on the Roof.'"

Kaufman emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States at the age of 12 and was forced to start school in the first grade. Only 11 years later she had graduated from Hunter, and then pursued a master's at Columbia University. She began to teach in New York City Schools, and worked part-time as a writer for Esquire and other publications.
In 1965 her book Up the Down Staircase was published, a novel that deals with the experience of a new teacher's experience dealing with both the other teachers and the educational system, and the students. The book was based upon Kaufman's own teaching experiences.

Kaufman has carried on the tradition of distinctly Jewish humor her grandfather was known for. The Times article opens with this example:

When Bel Kaufman sits you down on her sofa and asks, “Are you comfortable?” the right answer, she reminds you, requires a Yiddish inflection, a shrug and the words, “I make a living.”
In explaining the origins and particular flavor of Yiddish humor, Kaufman explained to the Times reporter:
“It goes back to immigration from the shtetl, from that poverty, and because the Jew was the object of so much opprobrium and hatred,” she said. “The jokes were a defense mechanism: ‘We’re going to talk about ourselves in a more damaging way than you could.’ ”
When asked about the secret to her longevity in a New York Post article earlier this year, Kaufman answered, "I'm too busy to grow old."

There are beautiful pictures of her at Sholem Alecheim's 150th birthday celebration In the blog of Joan L. Roth, a photographer and writer who has done much documentary work about Jewish Women. See

Other links:
NY Times:

NY Post:


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