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Dissecting Jewish Humor at 100

Author Bel Kaufman shares comedic soul of her faith with students

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.

"I am devoted to dancing," she says, and brushes off friends' warnings with a quip: "How can I fall? My partner is always holding me up!"

Survival tactic

Kaufman is quick to nail the laugh, which fits nicely with her theory about the Jewish comedic soul: "The persecution of Jews through the centuries has created a cultural defense — the default to humor. Thumbing their nose at adversity helped them survive."

Although not religious in the traditional sense — she doesn't pray or attend holiday services — Kaufman feels an affinity with those of her faith. Their comic predisposition was the inspiration for her course at Hunter, titled "Laugh Laugh Laugh."

On Tuesday nights she dissects Jewish wit, oral and written, giving her students a reading list and archival examples. She examines the various subjects of jokes, for example, hypochondria:

"A Frenchman says, 'I'm tired and thirsty. I must have wine.'

"The German says, 'I'm tired and thirsty, I must have beer.'

"The Jew says, 'I'm tired and thirsty. I must have diabetes.' "

Courting humor

In her own life there's also a touch of comedy when she relates meeting her "younger man" second husband.

"You know how when you're divorced [and] people invite you to a party to meet someone new? And how offended you are when you see whom they've selected for you? There was a psychiatrist at the party, we had a conversation and he seemed interested. 'Next time I'm in New York, may I invite you to dinner?' he asked, then ran off to catch a train.

"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.