Kaufman Captivates Audience at Marymount Manhattan College
Joan Baum, Ph.D.
ça change, plus c’est la même chose–the
more things change, the more they stay the same. She repeats the
well known expression in playful, dusky tones, and it’s hard to
believe that Bel Kaufman, author, teacher, raconteur, is 91. Though
it’s been a couple of years since her last visit to Marymount
and a lot has happened in her life and in the world, what has
stayed the same is her joie de vie. Soon after she finishes
her talk on her writing life as the granddaughter of the famous
Yiddish writer Sholom (“Fiddler on the Roof”) Aleichem, she will
take off for her usual downtown date with tango dancing. She’s
wearing high heels.
It is early evening, and the golden chandeliers shine with burnished
beauty in Marymount Manhattan College’s newly refurbished mezzaine,
a subtle-toned, elegant parlor that suits Bel Kaufman perfectly.
She positions herself casually, confidently, at the dais, and
will soon dismiss the “unnecessary and intrusive” microphone,
preferring instead direct, informal, unmediated conversation with
her audience. The room is full. Her voice is strong, deep, unwavering.
She smiles, makes eye contact. It is impossible not to smile back.
She is sincere, she is a pro. She looks at least 20 years younger.
But it’s that voice that immediately commands attention. At once
she displays the warm humor and comedic irony that readers first
met in her hilarious and poignant memoir of teaching English in
an inner-city high school, Up The Down Staircase (1965),
the book that made her reputation. Time Magazine called
it “easily the most popular novel about U.S. public schools in
magna cum laude graduate of Hunter College, Bel Kaufman went on
to win numerous awards for short stories, fiction and nonfiction,
and for a moving tribute to her famous Papa, “Memories of My Grandfather,”
from which she takes nuggets here and there on this October night.
She chooses to attribute her sense of humor to genes–to “Papa”
Aleichem. She’s brought a photograph to show–little Belushka,
five years old, on her famous grandfather’s lap. Of course, no
one sees the resemblance, concentrating as they are on the sophisticated
woman at the dais, marveling at her cultured intelligence and
easy graciousness. “She hasn’t missed a beat,” a woman in the
front row whispers to her friend, not exactly sotto voce.
The talk is forty minutes of studied but effortless charm–stories,
anecdotes, jokes about and by Sholom Aleichem that reveal the
teller as much as the subject of her tales. She clearly has her
audience in thrall. The occasion is the Marymount Manhattan College
Writing Center’s 2nd Jack Burstyn Memorial Lecture, a series named
in honor of the father of Marymount friend, Sharon (Mrs. Peter)
Green. She thanks the members of the audience for their warm welcome,
then adds with wicked glee, “I deserve it.” She moves to the microphone,
but not without shooting a mock glance of petulance at Lewis Frumkes,
director of The Writing Center, for having announced her age to
the world, but she’s clearly proud of her nonagenerian triumphs,
and for sure she’s in great form–pleased, she says, that she’s
“more or less vertical.” She enjoys the audience’s laughter and
encourages more. As Sholom Aleichem would say, she points out,
“laughter is the sound of survival,” one should indulge, one should
“laugh on credit.” She goes on to identify this view as intrinsically
Jewish, the laughter that is dead serious at the core, gallows
humor that comes from adversity but turns on hope, ethnic humor
that is also universal.
She concludes by noting that once a year, on Sholom Aleichem’s
birthday, May 12A (he was superstitious, she says, and avoided
the number 13) his deathbed wish is honored: to have gathered
together people who will tell stories and laugh. Everyone, she
declares, is invited next year to the Brotherhood Synagogue to
honor that tradition. Meanwhile, she will be writing her own memoirs
and when not so engaged, slithering around doing the tango. “I’m
too busy to grow older.” #
information about The Marymount Manhattan Writing Center’s series
of talks, seminars, and courses call: (212) 774-4811.
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