Bel Kaufman, the daughter of a physician and writer, was born in Berlin, raised in Russia, and came to the United States when she was twelve. She was educated at New York City's Hunter College and Columbia University, where she received a B.A. and M.A., respectively.
For over twenty years Kaufman taught in New York City high schools, and it was there that she gained the background experience that led her to write Up the Down Staircase (1965), the much celebrated novel about a young woman teacher in an inner-city school, which subsequently became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and then sold over 1,500,000 copies in its first month in paperback. The book remained on the best-seller list for some sixty-four weeks and, two years later (in 1967), became a Warner Brothers motion picture starring Sandy Dennis. Time magazine called Up the Down Staircase "easily the most popular novel about U.S. public schools in history."
A second novel, Love, appeared in 1979. Kaufman has also taught and lectured at a number of colleges, including the New School for Social Research, Manhattan Community College, the University of Rochester, and the University of Florida. Her short story "Sunday in the Park" won the National Education Association/P.E.N. Short Story Contest in 1983. Kaufman has described herself as a teacher first and then a writer. In fact, she has confessed, "I do not LIKE writing; in truth, I HATE writing, and would rather do anything else. But the joy comes when, almost in spite of myself, I come close to what I want to say. A sentence or an insight leaps from the page."