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One On 1: Bel Kaufman Follows Her Grandfather's Literary Steps

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A living link to the immigrants who left Eastern Europe for New York in the late 19th and early 20th century, accomplished author and centenarian Bel Kaufman feels she has also honored the legacy of her grandfather, renowned Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

Bel Kaufman is 100 years old, and in responding to compliments about how she looks at her age, she shows she hasn't lost any of her comic timing.

"Very modestly, I said 'No, I'm just an old, tired Jewish woman.' He said, 'You don't look Jewish," Kaufman jokes.

In a city that's constantly changing, Bel Kaufman is a direct connection to the late 19th and early 20th-century Eastern Europe that so many New Yorkers left for a better life here.

She is the granddaughter of the great Yiddish writer from that era, Sholom Aleichem, whose stories would one day serve as the inspiration for the Broadway musical "Fiddler On The Roof."

As a writer, Kaufman is known primarily for the best-selling novel "Up The Down Staircase," inspired by her years as a teacher. She says the book's success helped her deal with the blessing and burden of her literary heritage.

"It was as if I had permission. 'It’s all right, belochka, you could write, you can also write.' So I began to feel worthy of being his granddaughter and a writer," says Kaufman.

In May, Kaufman was the guest of honor at several parties celebrating her centennial, including a night for the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, featuring actor Eli Wallach.

She devoted the time leading up to her 100th birthday by teaching a course at Hunter College on the origins of Jewish humor.

"Much of it pokes fun at itself, sort of defense mechanism," says Kaufman.

One might say that Bel Kaufman was Frank McCourt before Frank McCourt -- a lifelong teacher -- whose first book brought international acclaim.

"We were introduced, he said, 'You're the one who started it,'" says Kaufman.

"Up The Down Staircase" sold millions of copies and was translated all over the world and it was made into a movie. Kaufman even made a brief cameo in the film.

"I was the technical consultant, if you please," she says. "They paid me money, they let me hang around, they didn't listen to a word I said."

But people who read the book, especially her fellow teachers, were listening.

"The letters I have received after 'Up The Down Staircase' was published: 'How did you know? You described my class,'" says Kaufman.

Initially, Kaufman did not have a title for the book, so she searched through her own writing. The title she settled on has become a common phrase in our vocabulary.

"I thought 'up the down staircase' has many meanings. Somebody swimming against the tide, somebody struggling," she says.

Kaufman was already 54 when the book was published in 1965, and her life would never be the same.

"My life changed drastically. Like [poet Lord] Byron said, I woke one night and found myself famous. It was from poverty to riches," says Kaufman.

Kaufman was raised primarily in Odessa, now in the Ukraine but then part of Russia. She says a poem of hers was published in a Russian children's magazine when she was only seven.

Kaufman emigrated with her family to New York at the age of 12, without knowing a word of English.

She would eventually attend and graduate from Hunter College and start to write, but it wasn't easy coping with her grandfather's legacy.

"Even when I was little, they expected something of me, and I didn't know what and I didn't know how," says Kaufman.

She says she got a piece into Esquire, lopping off the "-le" at the end of her first name, Belle, since Kaufman felt the magazine at the time did not publish female writers.

How did she get into teaching, at Seward Park High School and other sites around the city? Kaufman says a friend one day invited her to take over her classroom.

"All those eyes looking at me, waiting. What can I give them? They are waiting," says Kaufman. "Extraordinary sense of goose bumps, extraordinary experience."

Decades of experiences would eventually turn into "Up The Down Staircase," and the result exceeded all of her expectations.

Kaufman says the period of writing was painful. Much like her grandfather, she persevered with humor, using laughter through the tears.

"I was alone and lonely, divorced. Mother was dying, children were grown and away, and I remember spoiling certain pages by tears falling, on the funniest pages of the book," says Kaufman.

She would write one more book, a novel called "Love, Etc." There were also short stories and occasional magazine assignments, like interviewing former Soviet first lady Raisa Gorbachev.

"They said, 'Describe what she wears.' And I said, 'That isn't the way I write, but for that money I'll describe her underwear,'" says Kaufman.

Kaufman lives with her second husband Sidney Gluck, who is still a kid at 94.

And there is always the specter of her grandfather, Sholom Aleichem, whom Kaufman called "Papa." She keeps a letter he wrote to her a year before he died, and hopes to answer that letter one day by writing a memoir.

"Dear Papa, I did grow up. I did learn to write and now I want to tell you all about what has been happening sense you died. To you, to me," says Kaufman.

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