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She was born in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City and is the daughter of the notable Rabbi Bernard Birstein of the Actor's Temple. She attended Queens College and published her first novel, Star of Glass, in 1950 at the age of twenty three. She was married to and later divorced the literary critic Alfred Kazin, with whom she has a daughter, Cathrael Kazin, Chief Academic Officer of College for America at Southern New Hampshire University; she is stepmother to professor and author Michael Kazin. She is a former professor of Barnard College. She currently resides in New York City.
Star of Glass (1950)
The Sweet Birds of Gorham
The Rabbi on Forty-seventh Street (biography of her father, Rabbi Bernard Birstein)
The Last of the True Believers
What I Saw at the Fair (autobiography)
Vanity Fare (2009)