Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bel Kaufman | 'Staircase' author, 103

Bel Kaufman in 2012 . Open Road Media
Bel Kaufman in 2012 . Open Road Media

Bel Kaufman, 103, the witty and spirited fiction writer, educator, and storyteller whose million-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 at her Manhattan home after a brief illness, said her daughter, Thea Goldstine.

Ms. Kaufman was a middle-age 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, even the title of Ms. Kaufman's book became a tell-all label, shorthand for all the senseless rules students and educators could never quite follow.

Up the Down Staircase, a scrapbook of letters, notes, and memos, follows a few months in the life of the idealistic young Sylvia Barrett, the new teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School. She is a kind soul staggering under a blizzard of administrative nonsense and student impudence. When she's not being reprimanded for her students' failure to memorize the school song, she faces a crowded but endearing class of misfits and other characters, from rebel Joe Ferone to the brown-nosing Harry A. Kagan.

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

After Staircase, she wrote a second novel, Love, Etc., and was a popular lecturer and speaker, talking about schools, the arts and her famous grandfather, including in the 2011 documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. She received numerous honorary awards, enjoyed tango dancing well into her 90s, and, in 2010, was invited by Hunter College to teach a course in Jewish humor. - AP

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