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.