Dear Bel Kaufman,

Dear Bel Kaufman,

Happy birthday! I just read The New York Times article celebrating you and your work and announcing that you are now officially one hundred years young! Thank you for being my muse and mentor for most of my career as a teacher and writer. This is not the first time I’ve thanked you for inspiring me. Your insightful and moving novel Up the Down Staircase was the subject of an entire chapter in my memoir, Going by the Book. There I thanked you for the novel that helped me through my difficult early years teaching high school English.

You may not remember, but when Going by the Book came out in 1994, you learned about it and invited me to tea at the Mark Hotel. I recall getting off the subway and changing from sneakers to heels on the street so as to be worthy of the hotel and my hostess. You were witty and kind, asking me about my own writing and sharing anecdotes about your Russian childhood, your immigrant experiences, your career as an inspirational speaker, and your ballroom dancing.

I left the Mark more inspired than ever and returned to my classroom and my newest writing project, a mystery series featuring a community college English prof as a menopausal amateur sleuth. This character was as yet unnamed, so I decided to name her after the protagonist of Up the Down Staircase, Elizabeth Barrett. I christened her Sibyl Barrett.  I thought of her as a kind of seer, a person equipped to see through fakery to identify killers. But only her mother calls her Sibyl. To the rest of us, she is Bel, my tribute to you, the writer of a book that made millions of Americans flies on the graffitied walls of the urban classroom. Who will ever forget those fraught memos from the principal and the heartfelt, if misspelled, notes in Miss Barrett’s suggestion box? I included excerpts from administrative emails and student essays in all my Bel Barrett mysteries to enable my readers to join her in the community college classroom.  

  Articles about you never fail to mention your kinship with Sholom Aleichem, the source

of the stories that became Fiddler on the Roof.  He, too, was a great story teller. But I was no stranger to great Jewish story tellers who were men. You, a Jewish woman who wrote a tell-it-like- it–is but make it go down easy novel about a crucially important topic, public education in America, were the role model I didn’t even know I needed. Thanks for your good work. I wish I could take the course you’re teaching on Jewish humor at Hunter.  I bet it’s terrific.


Jane Isenberg


Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction

13 responses to “Dear Bel Kaufman,

  1. Ricki Koppel

    This is a learning experience! I have read Up the Down Staircase and seen the movie. Bel Kaufman sounds like a delightful person. I even “googled” her and am even more impressed. She looks darn good for a woman of 100 and that she is still teaching is even more unbelievable. And the granddaughter of Sholom Aleichem to boot!

  2. A wonderful tribute – had no idea what the genesis of Bel Barrett was and that it was connected to such a wonderful writer.

  3. Ann Lamb

    Bel Kaufman…hmmm..Why does that sound familiar…..?
    “Up the Down Staircase”! Oh, yes! Really struck a chord with a new teacher. Here’s someone else who understands. Delicious book. Love the title, too, for its other meanings: marching to different drum, the road not taken. Should read it again.

  4. Jane,

    How delightful your reflections, and poignant, also. That does take me back and bring memories, too. Your thoughts were poignant and am so glad that you did write them down. Somehow, that seems very important, that you did so.

    Thank you for sharing wonderful reflections.

    Pat Harrington

    • Glad my reflections on Bel Kaufman brought back some memories of yours, Pat. Before we had the words “support system,” she was mine. And I’m glad you agree that I should put my thoughts about her in writing. If not now, when, right?

    • Pat — Nice to see you here on Jane’s blog! Isn’t it great? (This is Melissa Morse, from MWA.)

      I love when writers connect with other writers through these blogs. It’s such a feeling of camraderie.

  5. Jane,

    Though I knew you in Seattle, I never knew this part of your life. It’s incredible. What a fabulous tribute, and great story.

    Isn’t it amazing how a successful writer can offer so much to someone just starting out? I felt just the same as you so many times, especially at the writing tables at Louisa’s. (Have you been?)

    Thanks for these letters. They do so inspire.

    • And I’ve yet to check out the writing tables at Louisa’s, Melissa, but I hope to. And I’m glad my notes to writers who’ve inspired me inspire you. I like that kind of chain reacton.

  6. Claudia Gary

    I too devoured “Up the Down Staircase” and found it very fulfilling. It’s still in my 10,000+ book collection. I must take it out for a second course and enjoy it again. I’m delighted to learn Bel Kaufman was honored as Bel Barrett. BK certainly inspired me as a teacher and I also connected with BB.

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