Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

July 23, 2012 by

Talking with Bel Kaufman

Photo by Joan Roth

Often during lunchtime, at the unbelievably delicious Italian restaurant Centolire, Bel Kaufman can be found regaling guests with stories. On May 11th, 2012, elegant friends gathered at the Madison Avenue eatery to celebrate her 101 birthday. “When I turned 100,” she told us, “Everyone called to say “oh how wonderful. G-d bless you. Oh, are you really 100. Can I make a party? There were parties and honoring events galore. Everywhere I went, people wished me a Mazel Tov, and on and on. Now, when I tell people I am 101 – they say, Oh, really.”

At lunch, Bel went around the table telling each one what she thought of us. For those seated nearby, she shouted, so they could hear her. Of course, I had brought my little camera with me and could not resist snapping this powerful moment – filled with the love, joy and exuberance with which Bel always lived life.

She says, the photograph reminds her that she is an anomaly. “I am not the average 101-year-old woman. Few live to be this old in as good as shape as I am,” she says.

Weeks later, Bel and I met for our own private lunch. This time at Demarchelier, another Bel French favorite. With Centolire closing and Demarchelier sold to new owners, Bel surpasses us all, exclaims the maître d’.

Bel’s wearing an unmistakable pair of oversized multicolored Pucci sunglasses, recently found in her drawer, “They’re older than I am,” she quips. I compliment her, saying she looks great, “If I don’t look good at 101, when will I look good?” she answers back with
effervescent charm and humor.

“What’s the secret of living so long?”
“Simple, just wait and wait, wait some more and keep on waiting.” About her hearing: “I hear half of what you say and make up the other half.” She refuses to wear a hearing aid. Not covered by Medicare. Like her grandfather, Sholom Aleichem, Bel hopes to be remembered with laughter. When she dies, she wants people to say, “You know Bel died,
ha, ha …”

She doesn’t consider living to 120 a blessing – the tradition hails from Methuselah having lived to 120 – unless, of course, she will have all her teeth, “My teeth are my own, my dentist can’t get over it,” and her blond hair. “My own, except the color.” She has finally
decided she will soon let it grey, and she can still walk and ballroom dance in her legendary high heels.

About her memory: Her memory has always been sharp. She was always proud of her brain, liked the way it worked.

A remembrance from a time when she was young and stood at ocean’s edge: “A young man approached with his son, who was only three. He turned to the ocean and said to him, ‘Tony, one day all this will be yours.’”

“When you were young did you realize what a brief and excellent time it would be?” she asks.

Bel was born in Odessa and grew up during the terrible time of the Communist revolution. “Before then we always had two cooks, that’s why the communists called us bourgeois – the worst name one could be called. My mother didn’t even know how to open a can.”
“Do you cook?”
“No, do you?”
“No.”

A Lesson in Communism:
“I was a 9-year-old girl, wheeling my baby brother, a newborn, in his carriage, in front of our house. I stopped, bent down to pick him up and hold him in my arms, when a woman came out of nowhere and stole the baby carriage. Today my baby brother, still very cute, is 92 years old. When my mother asked, ‘What happened to the carriage?’ I told her, others have babies too and they need carriages. Thank goodness they took the carriage and not the baby.”

“In those days, I had a little notebook. I think I still have it. I was writing my first Russian play. The title translated from Russian is, In The Kitchen, by Bel Kaufman. The notebook opens with a list of 29 characters. Each one is described to a T – how he/she looked, what each one wore, their socks, shoes and hobbies. By the time I finished describing the characters, the notebook was filled. There was no room for act 1 – scene 1.”

About digitizing her archives: “A whole new experience, a whole new media and vocabulary, a way of working that is both refreshing and challenging for me.”

Bel recalls, “I was always good at everything I did. But that’s not what life is really about. With all the awards, fame and tributes, what means the most to me is the letters I received from my students. Now that I find myself again reading them, my foot is stretched in two different worlds, two ways of being, needing to know who I am in the present, with the eyes to foresee what my future legacy might be.”

“When I went to school, I had to be the best. If I got 98% on a test, my father would say – only 98%? Why not 100%? And, when I graduated Hunter College magna cum laude, my father said, ‘Why not sum cum laude?’ My father’s inability to praise me haunted me all my life.”

After savoring the last drop of her whiskey sour, Bel rises. Wearing powder blue jeans, akin to fashionable summer leggings, a shirt, scarf and blazer, and, it goes without saying, high heels, she grabs her walker and off she goes.

Blessings to you dear Belochka. May you walk and dance in those outrageous high heels to at least 120!

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  • http://=== Shirley Goulds

    As I prepare to celebrate my 95th birthday (Aug 3) I am awed at the experiences of Bel Kaufman. My memory is good, my hearing is bad (I do wear hearing aids) and my system is comprom ised by multiple myelom a (4 years and counting). But it’s a joy to be alive, and a privilege to be a Lilith subscriber and occasio nal donor.

  • http://=== Shirley Goulds

    As I prepare to celebrate my 95th birthday (Aug 3) I am awed at the experiences of Bel Kaufman. My memory is good, my hearing is bad (I do wear hearing aids) and my system is comprom ised by multiple myelom a (4 years and counting). But it’s a joy to be alive, and a privilege to be a Lilith subscriber and occasio nal donor.

  • Amy Stone

    Joan- What a lovely moment captured.
    Sorry that Bel’s no longer with us.
    Sorry that Centolire isn’t either.