Bel Kaufman, retired teacher and author of the 1960s best-selling novel “Up the Down Staircase,” spoke at Iona College recently and offered advice about living life to the fullest after retirement.
She’s an expert on the subject; in May she turned 100. But don’t call her a senior; she hates the word. She told her audience, “I will never call you senior citizens. That reminds me of a high school prom. ‘Old’ is a beautiful word, and it suffices.”
But ‘old,’ in Ms. Kaufman’s lexicon, is not a synonym for taking it easy and fading into the background. Just the opposite; she sees later life as a time of great opportunity.
“Many people, when they are old, find that they are free for the first time in their lives,” she told CNY, because they no longer have to work, and they’ve finished raising their children. “All the insecurities of their youth are behind them,” she added. “They can do whatever they want,…and that’s a wonderful feeling of freedom.”
Ms. Kaufman spoke July 14 to members of an Iona program, Living in Retirement at Iona College (LIRIC). Founded in 1994, it offers noncredit courses and social activities for retirees. About 300 persons are enrolled; most are retired professionals.
More than 225 attended Ms. Kaufman’s talk, which she delivered while seated on the stage in Romita Auditorium in Iona’s Ryan Library. There was standing room only, and at least a third of the audience were retired teachers.
Much of her talk focused on humor, and specifically Jewish humor. Not long ago she taught a course in the subject at Hunter College, her alma mater. She said in an interview before her talk that humor is “a life force, a way of surviving the difficulties of living.”
Ms. Kaufman is the granddaughter of the Yiddish writer and humorist Sholem Aleichem; some of his short stories were the basis for “Fiddler on the Roof.” She told her audience that in his work, “it’s the ability to laugh at one’s own foibles that’s so funny.”
“Jews have their own kind of humor, where they poke fun at their own failings,” she said. It served as a kind of protection, too: “When you laugh at yourself,” she added, “you prevent others from laughing at you.”
A sense of humor helped her from childhood, she said; she was born in Berlin but lived as a child in Odessa and Kiev amid the turmoil and privation of the Russian Revolution. Russian is her first language. She emigrated with her family to the United States at age 12; she graduated from Hunter College and earned a master’s degree in literature at Columbia University.
She told CNY that she had wanted to be a writer until her best friend in college, who was studying to be a teacher, invited her to teach a practice class.
“I stood in front of those children; they were 6 or 7 years old,” Ms. Kaufman said. “I’ll never forget it. I saw their eyes upon me. They were waiting for me to say something, to do something, to help them, to guide them, to make them feel better.” Entranced, she decided to teach. “I’ll never forget that feeling,” she added. “I have it each time I step in front of a class or an audience.”
“Up the Down Staircase” was about a young teacher like herself who struggled to teach well despite her students’ troubles and foibles and the nitpicking of administrators. She published it in 1965. She also wrote short stories and another novel.
Ms. Kaufman was married and has a son and a daughter; she and her husband later divorced. She is married to her second husband, Sidney J. Gluck, 94. They live in Manhattan.
Ms. Kaufman spoke with CNY about how people can stay mentally and physically fit as they age.
“I think they have to be curious,” she said. “They have to be interested in life outside their little aches and pains. They have to be excited about seeing new things, meeting new people, watching a new play—just passionate about life…I don’t care what you’re passionate about; maybe saving Dixie cup covers. But if you do it passionately, you’re alive.”
She acknowledged that good health is necessary to stay active later in life, but those who have it can keep on going, she said. “Age is not a disease,” she added.
As for herself, “I’m too busy to grow old,” Ms. Kaufman said. “I have too much to do. When I have time, I’ll sit down and start growing old. But now, there’s too much to be done.”
Among those attending were Mary Ann Curtin of Larchmont, a parishioner at SS. John and Paul there and a retired teacher, and Marilyn Thiede of Mamaroneck, a parishioner at Most Holy Trinity, who is retired from the school system.
Ms. Curtin remarked, “You have to have a sense of humor if you’re teaching,” she said, “or you don’t make it through the day!”
Mrs. Thiede said that Ms. Kaufman is “a wonderful inspiration.” She liked the message that “you can never stop attaining things in your life.”
Both are enthusiastic about LIRIC. Activities, they said, include lectures, movies and book discussions. The cost is $160 for a semester that runs from fall through spring.
“I have relatives out-of-state,” Mrs. Curtin said, “and they say, ‘I wish we had LIRIC.’ ”