Brother and Sister

Biography

By Sherwin Kaufman

Published November 17, 2010, issue of November 26, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

This is the story of a brother and sister, Russian immigrants, who arrived at Ellis Island almost 90 years ago, knowing no English. Decades later, I, the brother, was invited back to Ellis Island as a composer of an anthem celebrating the immigrant experience, while my sister excelled in English and became a famous novelist. How did these events occur?

Knee High: Bel Kaufman with her grandfa- ther Sholom Aleichem.
LAURENCE WEINBERG COLLECTION
Knee High: Bel Kaufman with her grandfa- ther Sholom Aleichem.

It was 1922. My parents and my only sibling, a sister, Bel, immigrated to New York from Russia to live with our grandmother, the widow of the author-humorist Sholom Aleichem. He died in 1916. (Years later, some of his stories of Tevye the dairyman became the basis for the play “Fiddler on the Roof”). Upon arrival to this country, I was 2 years old and Bel was 11. Even here, Russian was the only language spoken in the privacy of our home.

Apparently I had shown a musical talent early on, and at age 11 I won a gold medal in a statewide New Jersey piano competition. At Columbia College I became the accompanist for the glee club even appeared in their programs as a piano soloist. At Weill Cornell Medical College I played at variety shows and composed variations on the Cornell alma mater, as great composers might have played it. Music had become (and remains) an integral part of my life; however, I chose medicine (my father’s profession) as a surer way of making a living.

After retiring from a long and successful medical practice in the expanding field of infertility almost 20 years ago, I began a new career as a songwriter, winning awards for both music and lyrics. One of my anthems, “Sing America” (co-written with Brian Muni), was played at the Ellis Island Medals of Honor Awards Gala, on May 12, 2001. As an invited guest at this black-tie event, I heard the song played at the beginning of festivities and then as a musical background during a video of the ceremony.

Now Bel was much older than I upon arrival to this country, and also had to learn a new language. Learn English at age 11? How did she manage? After public schools, she breezed through Hunter College magna cum laude and then went on to receive Highest Honors for her master’s degree at Columbia University. (She now holds an honorary doctorate from Hunter College.) After becoming a teacher at several New York secondary schools, she began writing articles and short stories. And some years later she became renowned as the author of the book “Up the Down Staircase,” which sold over 6 million copies. The book, based on her experiences as a high school teacher and published more than 40 years ago, is still popular today, after numerous reprints with an updated preface. The novel was made into a prize-winning movie and has been translated into many languages.

In her Park Avenue apartment there is a large photograph of Sholom Aleichem holding a young Belochka (as family members call Bel) on his lap. Bel is the only person alive to have known the great Yiddish writer, to remember the sound of his voice and even the touch of his hand. In recent years Bel has made a career of public speaking (whether in English or Russian), and still wears heels to weekly ballroom dancing!

A few years ago she celebrated her 95th birthday. It was attended by many close friends who had much to say about their personal relationship with her — poignant memories as well as a good deal of humorous banter. For my part, I recited a few of my limericks to help celebrate her remarkable life:

So what can I say about Bel,
To compete with, and rivals dispel?
Well, I am her brother
And there is no other
Whose DNA matches as well.

Now Bel has one brother, it’s I.
I didn’t say “me,” you know why?
Bel’s grammar is pure,
But mine is unsure,
And that’s just between you and I.

My sister is now 99, and I am 90. We make it a point to speak to each other very frequently on the phone — usually in Russian, as so not to forget our mother tongue.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.