Cracking Wise: Using humor to survive stressful times

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Bel Kaufman is seated in her long, light-filled Park Avenue apartment in what appears to be a white plastic outdoor chair, discussing the privileges that come with age. “I don’t do what I must do,” she says, “I do what I want to do.” Kaufman is wearing a beige blouse and light, neat makeup. Her hair is softly curled, her posture very straight. She wears sharp black flats — no orthopedics here. “Now, if I don’t want to do something, I say, ‘I’m sorry, no. I’m a hundred years old.’”

At one of three birthday parties given for her this year, Kaufman ’36GSAS graciously accepted her audience’s praise, but brushed aside the accomplishment of living a full century: “It must have happened when I wasn’t looking.” Kaufman still goes dancing every Thursday night, and a friend says her talent is in the mambo. She is working on her memoirs, but says that she hasn’t had much time to actually sit and write. Age can’t quite keep up with her pace, though she does sometimes misplace things in her files and “that wouldn’t have happened when I was 99.”

On the other hand, her personal files are extensive. Her apartment is filled with written material — letters, awards, and hundreds of books, including copies of Kaufman’s own 1965 best-selling novel, Up the Down Staircase, in several editions and languages. On a coffee table next to where she is seated is a book of photographs her children made for her.

Here is Bel at five, in Ukraine, sandwiched between her parents, the whole family wearing big fur hats. Here is her bright-eyed grandfather, the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, dressed as always, Kaufman says, in very dapper fashion. And here is Bel, older, windblown in a bathing suit with her son and daughter, and still many years away from becoming the well-coiffed and glamorous woman in her straight-backed plastic chair on Park Avenue (she says it’s better for her back).

This spring, Kaufman, while still only 99, became an adjunct professor at Hunter College, where she taught a course on Jewish humor. Not only is a sense of humor one of Kaufman’s defining personality traits, it’s also her latest and most personal academic interest: the study of humor as a means to survival. In other words, laughing in the face of something as serious as time might be exactly why she made it so far in the first place.

Kaufman’s course examines “why so many American comedians are Jewish, why so many Jewish jokes are self-accusing,” and why the resulting Jewish humor is a defense mechanism for survival. “Jewish humor,” she says, “is about beating adversity. Many Americans have absorbed that.”

When Kaufman immigrated to New York from Moscow at age 12, she entered the American school system with “not a word of English on my tongue,” and was placed in first grade. Her academic life improved from there. It’s funny: After graduating magna cum laude from Hunter in 1934 and earning a master’s in English literature from Columbia, after teaching hundreds of New York City schoolchildren and selling millions of books, after moving from Newark to Park Avenue and living to a hundred, Kaufman is still the oldest girl in the classroom.

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