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Bel Kaufman, at 103; writer of ‘Up the Down Staircase’

NEW YORK — Bel Kaufman — the witty and spirited fiction writer, educator, and storyteller whose millions-selling ‘‘Up the Down Staircase’’ captured the insanity and the humor, the pathos and the poetry of the American high school — died Friday at age 103.

Ms. Kaufman, the granddaughter of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem and a vital link to Yiddish culture, died in her Manhattan home after a brief illness, said her daughter, Thea Goldstine.

Ms. Kaufman was a middle-aged teacher and single mother in the mid-1960s when her autobiographical novel was welcomed as a kind of civilian companion to Joseph Heller’s ‘‘Catch-22,’’ a send-up of the most maddening bureaucracy. Like ‘‘Catch-22,’’ the title of Ms. Kaufman’s book became a tell-all label, shorthand for the senseless rules students and educators never quite followed.


The scrapbook of letters, notes, and memos follows a few months in the life of the idealistic young Sylvia Barrett, a new teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School. She is a kind soul staggering under a blizzard of administrative nonsense and student impudence.

When not being reprimanded for her kids’ failure to memorize the school song, she faces a crowded but endearing class of misfits and other characters .

When the book was released in 1965, The New York Times’ Beverly Grunwald praised Ms. Kaufman’s ‘‘refreshing way of stating the facts, of breaking down statistics into recognizable teenagers, of making you smile, be contrite and infuriated all at once.’’

Ms. Kaufman became a heroine for teachers and students. ‘‘Up the Down Staircase’’ has sold more than 6 million copies and has been translated into 16 languages. It was made into a film starring Sandy Dennis and helped start a trend of candid education books.

Ms. Kaufman was delighted to learn that teachers in one of her former schools were warned not to let her see any memos, for fear they would end up in a book.


Decades later, another New York teacher-turned-celebrity, Frank McCourt, would praise ‘‘Up the Down Staircase’’ as one of the few honest looks at the public school system.

‘‘She got all the craziness of the paperwork and the administrators and supervisors,’’ McCourt, author of the memoirs ‘‘Angela’s Ashes’’ and ‘‘Teacher Man,’’ said in 2005.

She was born Bella Kaufman in Berlin, raised in Odessa, and her first language was Russian. Her family fled in 1923 to escape the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and she arrived in the United States at age 11, speaking no English.

The kindness of her teacher inspired her to become an educator, too.

She caught up quickly, graduated magna cum laude from Hunter College in 1934, and received a master’s degree in English from Columbia University two years later. She married Sidney Goldstine, with whom she had two children.

Literature was in her blood, not just from her grandfather, but from her mother, Lyalya Kaufman, a prolific writer.

After leaving Columbia, Ms. Kaufman wrote short fiction, including ‘‘La Tigresse,’’ published in Esquire with a small but lasting revision: She shortened her first name to Bel because the magazine only accepted work by men.

During the 1950s and into the ’60s, she taught in high schools and community colleges, never suspecting the good fortune of the second half of her life. The turn began in 1962 when her brief essay ‘‘From a Teacher’s Wastebasket’’ was published in the Saturday Review of Literature. She received $200 and was contacted by an editor at Prentice Hall, Gladys Justin Carr, who told her that her article might make a nice start for a novel. She resisted. Carr offered an advance. Ms. Kaufman spent it. ‘‘So I had to write the book,’’ she recalled.


The novel took nine months and was finished during the ‘‘lowest point’’ of her life. She had left her husband, her kids were grown, and her mother was ailing. Some pages had to be retyped because of the teardrops on the manuscript.

After ‘‘Staircase’’ she wrote a second novel, ‘‘Love, Etc.,’’ and was a popular speaker, talking about schools, the arts, and her famous grandfather, including in the 2011 documentary ‘‘Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.’’

She enjoyed tango dancing well into her 90s, and, in 2010 was invited by Hunter College to teach a course in Jewish humor. Her own life was a good punchline.

‘‘In schools where I used to patrol the toilets,’’ she once said, ‘‘I am today required reading.’’