How often does an almost-centenarian land a new job?
Recently hired to teach a class in Jewish humor at her alma mater, Hunter College in New York, Bel Kaufman has good reasons to keep laughing. It's an indelible part of her heritage.
Born to Russian parents in Berlin on May 10, 1911, Kaufman spent her childhood years in Odessa and arrived in America at age 12 knowing not a word of English. A sympathetic teacher inspired her; she became a teacher herself after graduating magna cum laude from Hunter and earning high honors in graduate school at Columbia University.
Granddaughter of Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, Kaufman is well known for Up the Down Staircase, the 1965 novel she based on her experiences in the New York City school system. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for 64 weeks and was subsequently made into a 1967 movie starring Sandy Dennis.
Kaufman, born the same year as Ginger Rogers and Gypsy Rose Lee, is kicking up her heels these days. She goes to a dance studio every Thursday night where instructors keep her waltzing, foxtrotting and doing the tango.
"Suddenly he was replaced by a tall young man who sat next to me. I said to him, 'For you, I'd cook dinner,' which was a joke, because I didn't cook — I still don't — but he took me up on it. He came the next Saturday night with a bottle of wine. I'd bought a steak and he cooked. We stayed up until 3 that morning talking, and now, 38 years later, we're still together."
Sidney Gluck runs the Sholom Aleichem Memorial Foundation and, at 95, still goes to his office every day. Kaufman adds a postscript to their courtship:
"A woman warned Sidney about me. 'What do you want with Bel? While you're still young, she'll be an old woman!"
Free to be
Old woman? Grande dame is more like it. Kaufman — wearing aquamarine earrings, leopard-print boots and designer sunglasses — carries her cane like a chic accessory. Despite a hearing loss, her attitude is consistently upbeat. She mines the good news of reaching a triple-digit age, which she attributes to luck.
"Now I don't have to do what I had to do, now I do what I want to do. And what liberty that is!"
Bel's liberty is her freedom to accept speaking engagements, attend social events and occasionally see her son, daughter and granddaughter. They don't live nearby but will be on hand for one or all of the three birthday parties scheduled for May. On that occasion, she may repeat one of her favorite Woody Allen quotes:
"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work … I want to achieve immortality through not dying."
Marlene Fanta Shyer is a writer and author in New York.