Bel Kaufman is more than just another example of a writer who’s success did not depend on a legendary relative. While her grandfather Sholem Aleichem dedicated his work to the life of poor Russian shtetl Jews at the turn of the twentieth century, Bel’s main concern was the social situation in the American high schools of the 1960s. Still, family ties are not the only thing that unite a 101-year old best-selling author with classic Yiddish literature. We got a chance to talk with Bel Kaufman about Jewish humour, literary inheritance, Tevye the Milkman and many things more.
- In Eastern Europe and Russia, the places where Sholem Aleichem and his characters lived, a lot of people know you and know and love your books, but the first thing which comes to their minds when thinking about you is the fact that you are the granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem.
- I’m the only one in the whole world alive who knew him. I remember sitting and holding his hand, I remember his laugh. I was very little when he died. He died in 1916, and I was born in 1911. But he had an enormous influence on my childhood, my writing and my life.
- How exactly did he influence your writing? What are the things you can say you have inherited from him?
- I don’t know if you could inherit a talent. But you could inherit the background, the desire, the wish. When my first book, ‘Up The Down Staircase’ came out, I was told that the critics were very kind. They wrote ‘the same humour and compassion’, ‘she wears the mantel well’. In other words, they gave me the permission to be a writer. How can i write when my grandfather was a legend? How dare I? So the critics permitted me. I’ve heard the voice saying ‘Allright, Bellochka, you can also write’.
First it was just notes, not a book. Finally, The Saturday Review published it. The editor asked me: ‘Can you expand these three pages into a book?’ I said: ‘No, no, I’m not a novelist. I’m a teacher’ - I said it with pride, - A teacher of English. I write short stories for the magazines, but not novels’. They gave me an advance and I spent it. What could I do? I had to write a book.
- But was the book still based on your notes? On the real stories which happened to you?
- Fiction. And the best compliment I get from critics was that they think I just copied everything.
- I noticed that you and your grandfather have a similar sense of humor. It often seems that this kind of humor is something from the past. Do you think it can also exist now, or is it exclusively connected with those Jewish people from Eastern Europe?
- It’s hard to say. I gave a course last summer in Hunter College on Jewish humour, and we discovered that most of the comedians, humorist writers, stand up comics in this country are Jewish. Why? Well, from the ghetto Jews had so little. All they had was communication. They didn’t have food, they didn’t have health, they didn’t have money. They communicated. My grandfather heard their communication and loved it. He loved the Yiddish language and he decided to write in it, although he wrote very well in Hebrew and in Russian. He corresponded with Chekhov and with Gorky in beautiful Russian, and we talked only in Russian in our family. Yiddish was the language of the kitchen, illiterate women. He raised it to the level of literature, and that’s his great contribution.
- Do you know why Sholem Aleichem only spoke Russian at home?
- Because we lived in Russia!
- But Jews in Russia were primarily speaking Yiddish in those days…
- If you live in a country that has its own language, you should speak this language. When I spent a summer in France, I spoke French. So we spoke Russian. We understood Yiddish, my grandfather used to read his stories to us, and the children used to fight to sit near him. We understood his stories, we were his first audience.
- Sholem Aleichem wrote about Jews and Jewish life. Did you ever have an idea to write on such topics?
- I wasn’t brought up in a shtetl, was not brought up in a Jewish town. I always lived in large cities. I was born in Berlin, lived in Odessa, in Kiev, in Moscow. Everywhere I spoke the language of the city.
- When I was reading ‘Up The Down Staircase’, I was keeping in mind that you were a teacher and the novel was based on the stories from your teacher life. The novel is all about problem children, which are extremely hard to teach and communicate with. Did you have such experience yourself?
- You raise an interesting point. Sholem Aleichem is considered a great humorist. What did he write about? The poverty, the need, the sickness of the Jewish people in the shtetl. But the stories were funny. He was able to see the tragedy with a humorous eye. I wrote ‘Up The Down Staircase’, my first book, and people think it’s very funny. It is - they laugh. I described the terrible situation in public high schools, lack of communication, the ignorance of the directors, but I was making it funny. That what he did. I didn’t realize until the book was published - that what he does! Interesting.
- I didn’t think of that. That’s actually the answer to my first question, about the inheritance. It’s probably this humor, ability to view sad things from the humorous point of view.
- I don’t know whether it’s inherited or acquired. But the fact is that everybody in my family wrote. My father, although he was a doctor, was a poet, a translator, a writer, a painter, a sculptor. He made little sculptures out of Russian bread, and I had it for 90 years - I brought it from Russia. He turned it to the consistency of clay, he baked them, painted them - they are still here. His proud moment was when he needed to get a special permission from the Soviet government to export his ‘works of art’.
- How do young American Jews perceive Shalom-Aleichem? Things and culture he wrote about are something they hardly know.
- We had an interesting weekend a few days ago in Washington D.C. I was invited to three days of the Sholem Aleichem festival. We talked about Sholem Aleichem and I gave a talk about my book. Young people loved him. Not the way I love Nabokov or Dostoevsky, but rather like a close member of a Jewish family. I once gave a talk about him in Montreal, Canada. At the end an old man was wheeled up to the stage by a nurse. He said: I live in an old people’s home. I’m blind, I cannot see you. I’m deaf, I cannot hear you. But when I learned Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter was here, I insisted they bring me so that I could touch my hand. He touched my hand. I never forgot it. So you mention Sholem-Aleichem to a Jew and his face lights up. He was loved. He died young from tuberculosis, which was incurable in those days. Once in Baranovichi, a little town where he was giving a talk, he felt very sick. He was lying in a bed coughing with blood. A young man from that town spent hours covering a cobbled-stone street under his window so the passing horse carriage wouldn’t disturb him. That’s love.
- Can non-Jewish people perceive his books in the same way Jewish people do?
Not in the same way probably. But many people love his translations and certainly one of the most popular American musical, ‘The Fiddler On The Roof’ done by Sheldon Harnick. When we went to see the opening night, my mother was alive then, she kept saying to me: ‘It’s papa? It’s not papa!’ ‘Mama, it’s not papa, but it’s a beautiful American musical show.’
But do you know there was a real Tevye? You see that painting? It’s an interesting story. My husband and I were walking down the Madison Avenue, we saw this painting in the window. I said: ‘You know, it smells like spring. Let’s go and see what it is’. We walked in the gallery. The man said ‘Oh, that’s Tevye. Tevye The Milkman, by a Russian painter called Shenker’. So we bargained about the price and I bought it. He called the artist, and I’ve heard him talking on the phone to his mother in Brooklyn saying: ‘Mama, guess who bought my Tevye!’
Tevye was a very short skinny man with a funny black beard, which he grew out of his neck, not his chin. He used to deliver milk, cheese and eggs to Sholem Aleichem’s family in the countryside where they lived. Sholem Aleichem enjoyed talking with him, so he began writing in a local newspaper stories about Tevye The Milkman and his seven daughters. The ‘Fiddler’ had only five. Tevye The Milkman became a local celebrity. His customers used to say: ‘Come in, Reb Tevye, have a glass of tea, Reb Tevye’. He had no daughters at all, but Sholem Aleichem invented them. I never met Tevye, but my family had. When ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ was played in Japan, a Japanese actor played Tevye. When he was interviewed, he said: ‘Do you Americans actually understand this play? This is a Japanese play! It has all the things we value: tradition, family feeling…’