Bel Kaufman, who died on July 25 at 103, gave the impression she might live forever. During lunch on August 31, 2012 at her favorite eatery Demarchelier, she told me: “I have just stepped into the future.”
Her two novels, “Up the Down Staircase” (which was made into an award-winning film) and “Love, Etc.” were being digitized and sold as e-books. Seeing my reaction as she dug into a humongous omelet, she said, “I eat an awful lot…I warn people that I eat everything. I have all my teeth — only fillings…. When I was 100 everyone said, ‘God bless you! How wonderful!’ When I tell them I an now 101, they simply say, ‘Oh, really.” What about outliving your friends? I asked. “You just make new ones,” she replied.
Masha Leon and Bel Kaufman // Photo by Karen Leon
Between bites, Kaufman — whom I had known for over three decades and once kissed me on the head when I told her I had read her grandfather Sholem Aleichem’s works in Yiddish and did a dissertation on his “Eizenbahn Geshikhtes” (train chronicles) — confided “I was the first woman to get a by-line in Esquire magazine. It was the 1940’s and my agent told me that they don’t buy anything by a woman. So I changed my name from Belle to Bel.”
Addressing the Warburg Society Tea at The Jewish Museum, Kaufman told the guests: “Because I am 94, I am too busy to grow old.” Once asked if she was still dancing,” the avid sometimes 3-times-a-week on stiletto heels tango aficionada snapped back: “Are you still breathing?” She once confessed to an audience that at home Sholem Aleichem spoke only Russian. “ I had to attend a Sholem Aleichem school to learn Yiddish.”
In May 2010 she managed to speak extemporaneously at three consecutive [May 11-12-13] nights of celebration on the occasion of her 100th birthday—a Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene bash, a May 12 National Arts Club reception and a May 13 Hunter College ”Party of the Century” held at Roosevelt House at which she was lauded by Hunter College president Jennifer Raab as “a 1934 Magna Cum Laude alumna.” She ended her address with “Now that I am one hundred I feel liberated — “My time is precious, I no longer have to do what I must do.”
Kaufman’s last public appearance was at the December 2, 2013 Hanukkah Gala at Symphony Space at which Theodore Bikel was honored. Presenting the award to 90-year young Bikel, Kaufman stated: “I am truly happy to be standing here!”
During my delightful March 13, 2009 taped hour-long interview with Kaufman at the Jewish Braille Institute, she recalled walking with her grandfather as 3-year old holding hands. “’The harder you press my hand, the better I write,’ he told me…. I held on very tightly, so if you enjoy his writing — the credit goes to me… A year before he died in Odessa, he wrote ‘Dear Belushka, I am writing for you to hurry up so you can learn to write me letters. So it is necessary for you to drink milk, eat vegetables and fewer candies. Regards to your dolls. Your Papa, Sholem Aleichem.’ He told me you gotta stay alive even if it kills you.”