Profile: Bel Kaufman

Interviewed by the Wexler Oral History Project

Bel Kaufman, the former New York City schoolteacher whose first novel, Up the Down Staircase, became a best seller and instant classic, lived an extraordinary childhood. This was, in part, due to the fact that acclaimed Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem was her maternal grandfather. It was also due to growing up in Russia against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Here, she recounts some of her earliest memories of her famous grandfather, what it was like witnessing the horrors of war through a child’s eyes, and the experiences that would begin to shape her as the teacher, lecturer, and writer she would become.

My grandfather’s name was Sholem Rabinovitz. His pen name was Sholem Aleichem, which in Hebrew means “Peace be with you.” It’s a warm greeting, like “Hi, how are you?” You read him and you see the little shtetls, the little towns, the people, the characters. It’s great writing.

My childhood is nothing but a whole sea of memories of him. He played an enormously important role in my very young years. He was the source of fun, of laughter, of love.

I remember his clothes because he was very elegant. He wore velvet vests with exciting buttons, and interesting cravats. He liked to dress up. He was slight, with dark blond hair worn in the fashion of the day, down to his shoulders, and a pince-nez on a black ribbon. He liked to appear as attractive as he could. And I thought he was beautiful. He was not like any grandfather I knew. There was no other grandfather like him.

I was five years old when he died. I was still in Odessa. He died in New York. I knew him only when I was very little. 

I remember our house in Odessa. At that time we had a balcony on the second floor with stairs going up. Overhanging the balcony was an acacia tree. There was a huge iron gate leading to the courtyard and an apartment for the janitor. 

It was not a Jewish home. Of course we were Jews; we appreciated our Jewishness, culturally and spiritually, but we were not observant Jews. We went to synagogue on High Holy Days not for religious reasons but for cultural ones. At home we spoke only Russian. We understood Yiddish, but we spoke our language, Russian.

My parents’ friends, Sholem Aleichem admirers, used to visit on Friday nights. Poets, writers, and artists used to come. A man by the name of Elman came with his little son, Mischa, who was a violin prodigy and gave concerts. Poets and authors came to pay their respects after Sholem Aleichem died. 

My parents’ friends, Sholem Aleichem admirers, used to visit on Friday nights. Poets, writers, and artists used to come.

I lived in Russia during the Revolution. People were shot on the street. They lay in frozen positions until they were taken away. But to a child that is not frightening. A child has no experience. Doesn’t every little girl step over a dead body in the street? 

I remember our courtyard because during the worst days of the shooting a man ran into the courtyard to escape the bullets, but he was shot. And he lay on the ground in a peculiar position, his arm frozen as if he were saluting. My parents didn’t want me to look out of the window into the courtyard: “Don’t look, Beluchka!” Of course I looked. Who wouldn’t? And after a while someone removed his boots, someone removed his jacket . . . that was a daily occurrence. 

And yet we did not live like besieged, frightened people. No, we lived our normal lives, although we had many shortages. Not enough wood for the fire, not enough coal, not enough food. Oh, I remember the taste of hunger. And since then I appreciate food very much.

During the Bolshevik regime I was wheeling my brother home in his carriage. He was only a few months old. I was nine years old then. Two young Communist women in leather jackets approached me when I was wheeling him in front of our house. He was just born. They picked him up, thrust him into my skinny nine-year-old arms, and said, “We also have babies,” taking the carriage away. I was left with the infant, my tears falling on his blanket. I went upstairs and my mother said, “Beluchka, what happened?” I said, “They have babies too.” That was my introduction to Communism.

The first Sholem Aleichem book I read in Russian was Motl the Cantor’s Son. I understood Yiddish but did not read it. 

Motl was very real to me, but he was imagined by Sholem Aleichem. He is a typical mischievous boy, and I identified so completely with him. He, his brother Eli, and his friend Pinye are such funny characters. They spring from the page, and you say, “Ah, hello—I know you.” Remarkable.

I remember my first impression of New York. Noise. Sound. Too many images at once, coalescing into one big confusion. Somebody on the ship when we came here taught me one English sentence: “I am a large girl.” I was not large, but that was my first sentence. I learned it pretty quickly; I’m good at languages, and I love words. I’m thrilled by ordinary words. I read words as if they were paintings. They mean so many different things. But that’s another subject . . .

 

View this oral history in its entirety at yiddishbookcenter.org/bel-kaufman-oral-history.

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