I would love William D. Kaufman’s stories even if he weren’t 95 and this wasn’t his first book.
The 30 tales collected in “The Day My Mother Changed Her Name and Other Stories” (Syracuse University Press) unfold with an elegant simplicity; Kaufman’s voice is original, kind-hearted and funny. His characters are mostly family members and friends, and the cops, rabbis, teachers, prostitutes, politicians and coal miners he grew up among in Scranton, Pa. Max Apple, one of the best American storytellers, has written a foreword, praising the intimacy of Kaufman’s voice and his modern style.
The day Kaufman’s mother changes her name, he is in the third grade with a tough teacher who makes him feel shame that his immigrant mother can’t read English.
He later has to translate a meeting between the teacher and his proud mother who doesn’t hold back from telling the teacher what she really thinks. His mother, who understands the balance of wisdom, then takes to signing her name, in Yiddish, on his school papers, with the name of a beloved Yiddish writer. Meanwhile, she learns English.
“I categorize my stories as true, mostly true, partially true and fiction,” Kaufman writes in an introduction. “There are very few in the last category.”
He admits that he changes details and some endings, but for the most part these are stories drawn from his life. And it has been a good life, as he likes to say.
“I don’t write sad stories. There’s sad news in everyone’s lives,” he says, in an interview last week at Gurwin Jewish - Fay J. Lindner Residences assisted-living facility in Commack, L.I., where he has lived for the last eight years. He adds, “I was lucky. I have no complaint.”
When I arrive at Gurwin, he’s waiting by the front door. He wears a kipa, and his short beard and bright blue eyes seem color coordinated with his gray and blue striped sweater. Graciously, he offers a tour of the facilities and half a sandwich he saved from lunch. Everyone who passes by knows Kaufman and the book.
His two-room apartment is neatly packed with mementoes of his travels and his earlier life. Nearby, there’s a large space that he uses as an art studio, that’s also the bingo room and a lecture hall. We sit and talk in a recreation room that’s used for cards and other games. He’s the only resident with his own table, a private office of sorts, stacked with a dictionary, piles of papers, files and family photographs and the glass plates he makes. This is his writing desk, where he’ll often sit at night, after hours (past 9:30), when there’s silence in the hallways and no one to greet him. A new collection of stories, “Sabbath with the Golem of Prague,” is due out next year.
Kaufman sounds a lot like the narrator of his stories; the twinkle on the page is in his eye. In one story, he describes himself as “runty little kid, red-haired, my face invaded by a horde of freckles, and I was always giggling, even when I said my morning prayers.” His mother would tell him he was tickled by God. He explains that he has a “streak of ham in me that’s a mile wide” and really enjoys reading the stories to his fellow residents.
Others have written tales set in the shtetl, or among immigrants on the Lower East Side, or Jews in small towns in the South. Scranton in the 1920s and ’30s is Kaufman’s Yoknapatawpha. His unpredictable stories are a pleasure to read. In some, he looks back on his later life, even touching upon Gurwin, his present home. Among the writers he most admires are Isaac Bashevis Singer and John O’Hara, who came from a Pennsylvania town not far from Scranton.
When Kaufman was born in 1914, Scranton was a mining town with unpaved streets, frequent coal strikes and a depressed economy of its own before the Great Depression. His father, who immigrated to Scranton from Ukraine, started out as a peddler and went on to own a grocery store. Kaufman attended public schools — in one story he writes of serving as the water boy for the football team and then at helping the star halfback pass geometry — until his parents sent him to New York City. He studied at the high school and then at the college of Yeshiva University, where he worked as sports editor of the weekly college newspaper.
After graduating, he broke the news to his parents that he didn’t want to become a rabbi, as they hoped, and went on to the Columbia School of Journalism. When he graduated in 1938, he couldn’t find a job in New York City so he borrowed $100 from his father and bought The Abingtonian, a community newspaper in Clark Summit, Pa. He covered local events, wrote Democratic-leaning editorials in a Republican county, pursued advertising sales and says that he never made a dime. When he was drafted in 1941, he sold the paper. During the war, he served as a chief warrant officer in an anti-aircraft battalion in North Africa and Europe, and later worked for the American Zionist Emergency Council, until 1948. Kaufman joined the staff of The Jewish Theological Seminary, eventually heading its fundraising operation. In 1982, he retired after 31 years, a few months before the death of his wife of 35 years. He then began travelling to places he’d always wanted to see, like Tibet, China, Nepal, Russia, Spain, Italy and India, and spent a year studying in Israel.
While he’s had stories in his head since he was a young boy, he began writing them down once he stopped working. He took writing courses at colleges on Long Island, and kept writing, even after he moved into Gurwin, amassing more than 100 stories. At one of his public readings — he does several every year for fellow residents — a visitor heard him and was so bowled over by the stories that she contacted publishers on his behalf. When he learned that Syracuse University Press was interested in publishing his work, he says he felt like a million dollars.
While we’re talking, announcements on the public address system alert residents to a memoir writing workshop, and later to a party with music and dancing for the November birthday celebrants, including Kaufman who turned 95 earlier in the month. We head downstairs, and the author leaves his walker outside the room that doubles as a shul. He and his regular partner, Frieda Norotsky, grace the dance floor with a lively fox trot, to applause when they’re done. He sits out the line dances.
“I became interested in other things,” Kaufman explains. “I love my plates.” He makes collage-like designs with pictures and tissue paper and affixes a sealant. His colorful paintings, hanging near his desk and in the studio, are modeled after classic paintings by Picasso, Klee and others. “You have to do something,” he adds. He also enjoys being a member of the Explora-Torah Players.
“I have a very good life here,” he says.