Barbara Isenberg, author of Tradition!, is an award winning journalist who has been writing and lecturing about theater for over three decades. She is blogging here for the Visiting Scribe series all week.
One of the saddest parts of writing a book is having to set aside material you cherish but which simply doesn’t fit in the book that emerges. This happened to me too many times on my current book, Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, The World’s Most Beloved Musical, and among the treasures still in my files are outtakes from my interview with the writer Bel Kaufman.
Bel Kaufman is best-known to the general public as the author of the best-selling 1965 novel Up the Down Staircase, based on her own experiences as a New York City schoolteacher. But she is perhaps equally well-known to Jewish readers as the granddaughter of the great Yiddish humorist Sholem Aleichem. Since Aleichem’s wondrous short stories about Tevye the Dairyman inspired Fiddler on the Roof, I was particularly eager to meet her.
Until her death this July at age 103, Bel Kaufman was the last remaining family member who actually knew Aleichem before his own death in 1916. So it was that one summer day, not long after her 100th birthday, I went to visit her to talk about her famous grandfather. As you might imagine, she immediately warmed to the subject.
“He was the most wonderful grandfather any child could have,” she told me that day. “We never called him 'grandfather.' For us, he was 'Poppa Sholem Aleichem.' He was much too youthful to be a grandfather. He was slight and elegant, and he loved fancy clothes. Velvet jackets. Beautiful ties. He was more like a European man of letters. He corresponded in Russian with Tolstoy and Chekhov. Of course, I didn’t know all that at the time. To me, he was Poppa Sholem Aleichem, who was great fun.
“I remember the sound of his laughter, and I have two or three visceral memories. I remember the feeling of his hand. He used to tell me that the harder I held his hand, the better he wrote. So I take all credit, for I held on very tight.”
Kaufman also spoke of her adult role as Aleichem’s granddaughter. “When I came to this country, at 12, I was introduced as ‘Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter,’” she said. “It embarrassed me. I used to say it was my easiest accomplishment. All I had to do was to get born to his daughter. Then Up the Down Staircase was published to rave reviews, which I never expected. When the critics were kind enough to say I wore the mantle well, and had the same humor and compassion as my grandfather, it was as if I had been given permission to be a writer. It was as if I heard him say, alright, so be a writer.”
Barbara Isenberg is the author of Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical, State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work and Conversations with Frank Gehry. Her work has appeared in the LA Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Esquire, The Huffington Post, and London’s Sunday Times. She lives in Los Angeles. Read more about her and her work here.
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