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Party of the Century: Hunter Alumna Bel Kaufman at 100

Friends and admirers gathered Tuesday, May 10th at a party hosted by Hunter President Jennifer J. Raab at Roosevelt House to celebrate the 100th birthday of writer, professor, and Hunter alumna, Bel Kaufman. Kaufman, author of the 1965 novel Up the Down Staircase - a book that remained a New York Times Best Seller for 64 weeks, sold more than 6 million copies, and became a film - is the granddaughter of famed Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem.

Kaufman shared with guests her memories of being a student at Hunter, memories clearly belonging to a writer. She recalled a red brick house with a crooked tree out front; inside, the recitation of soliloquies. “We were very poor,” she remarked, “but we didn’t know how rich we were.”

Born to Russian parents in Berlin in 1911 (the same year as Ginger Rogers and Gypsy Rose Lee), Bel Kaufman came to New York with her family when she was just 12 years old and before she could speak the language. Because of this, she was enrolled in the first grade. By 1934, however, she had graduated magna cum laude from Hunter; she then went on to pursue a master’s at Columbia.

“What a classic Hunter story,” President Raab said in her toast, “from young immigrant with no English to super student who goes on to a brilliant career.” Hunter awarded Kaufman an honorary degree in 2001 and will name a wall in her honor in the soon-to-be renovated campus library. “We are conducting a fund-raising drive,” President Raab announced, “so that the space can chronicle [Bel’s] life and achievement for future generations.” 

Bel Kaufman's Birthday
Amanda Hick, a 2010 Hunter alumna, toasts Bel on her 100th birthday with a medley of playfully reconstructed songs from Fiddler on the Roof.

Kaufman recently taught a course in Hunter's School of Continuing Education on Jewish humor called, “Laugh, Laugh, Laugh.” It is clear that laughter and humor are two things which keep Bel Kaufman young. In her spare time, she said, she also likes to mambo with friends.

The evening’s program included cake, wine, and the gift of song - witty reconstructed show tunes from Fiddler on the Roof performed by recent Hunter alumna Amanda Hicks.

“Now that I’m a hundred years old,” Kaufman added, “I feel very liberated.” When asked if she was enjoying her birthday party, she replied, “I’m enjoying being old.” 

To donate to the Hunter College Library campaign in honor of Bel Kaufman, please visit

A profile of Bel appears in the May 12 edition of The New York Times --

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