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Columbia president talks about the situation




ENCINO, Calif., March 6 (JTA) — Offering the chance to parade in costume as Queen Esther or King Ahasuerus, shake groggers at the mention of Haman’s name and feast on hamantashen, Purim is the perfect holiday for — our kids’ grandparents and great-grandparents. At every age, we must be connected to life’s fun side, and Purim, the boisterous and tumultuous holiday that begins this year at sundown on March 24 and celebrates the triumph of the Jews in ancient Persia over enemies determined to destroy them, gives us that opportunity. But far more than the kids, today’s elders — many of whom are contending with the death of a spouse, poor health, loneliness and dwindling finances — need the frivolity that Purim brings. Of the 35 million Americans who are 65 and older, up to 7 million suffer from some form of depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That age group also claims the nation’s highest suicide rate, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “Laughter is the best medicine,” says Faye Sharabi, activity director for Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ Valley Storefront, an adult day health-care center in North Hollywood, Calif. For the entire month leading up to Purim, Sharabi provides a variety of fun-filled activities, all part of the five-day-a-week program of physical and occupational therapy and socialization for the Storefront’s elderly, physically disabled and/or memory-impaired clients, who range in age from 40 to 99. “The Megillah is a fascinating story that is not just for kids,” says Sharabi, who stresses Queen Esther’s positive outlook and ability to inspire the Jewish people. She arranges a Queen Esther “makeover” for the female participants as well as a beauty pageant, with everyone designated a queen. “When you’re elderly, you’re still beautiful,” she says. The highlight, however, is Purim morning, when the king and queen, selected by lottery beforehand, are crowned and feted with flowers, a fiddler playing Jewish songs and a parade. In addition, costumed second-graders from nearby Adat Ari El Day School come to sing, dance and share hamantashen that they baked the previous day. They also bring sequins, feathers and other art materials to help the revelers make Mardi Gras-style masks. “The older people love the kids. They see that the kids care about them and that they are not left alone,” says second-grade teacher Soli Friedman. For many older Jews, Purim evokes positive memories of their own childhood celebrations. “I played Queen Esther at the Rock Park Theater in Rockaway Park. My mother made me a long white dress with a red sash. My brother was Haman,” says Ida Greenbaum, who was originally from New York and now lives in the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda, Calif. Another resident, Anne Marion, who grew up in Chicago, remembers her mother buying cherries and prunes off a horse-drawn cart. “We didn’t have a grinder. We used a chopping knife with a single blade and a big wooden bowl,” she says. Others were denied such memories. “My father was an atheist. There was no religion in the home,” says Dorothy DelMonte, raised in Los Angeles, who lives in the Jewish home. Molly Forrest, the home’s chief executive officer, says, “They enjoy and share memories with other Jews here. For some of them, it’s a part of their heritage that they discover anew.” With two campuses and two full-time rabbis, the home offers its 800 residents many opportunities to revisit or rediscover their Jewish heritage. For Purim, there’s a full Megillah reading, in Hebrew and English, on both campuses. In addition, seventh-grade students from the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, Calif., entertain the residents with songs and silly skits, and, later, conversation over hamantashen. “These intergenerational interactions give students and seniors an opportunity to appreciate each other’s unique outlooks and experiences,” says Betty Winn, Heschel’s head of school. These exchanges are especially valuable to those older people with no closely related living family members, who make up one-third of the home’s population. Other older adults are less interested in intergenerational activities. “We have too much fun ourselves,” says Paula Fern, director of the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ Pico-Robertson Storefront and Holocaust Survivors Program. Her group is Café Europa, a social and support group for Holocaust survivors that was founded in 1987 by social worker Dr. Flo Kinsler and has spread to other U.S. cities. In Los Angeles, Café Europa’s Purim celebration, funded by the Claims Conference, is expected to draw approximately 150 survivors. Fern explains that the March 22 event is a party, a catered luncheon with singing in a variety of languages, dancing and feasting. Many of the members, who observe a range of religious practices, attend Megillah readings and carnivals with their families. For some survivors, the festivities provide an opportunity to recall memories of a happy Jewish childhood in prewar Europe. Eva David, who grew up in Transylvania, remembers her mother covering every available surface of their house with freshly baked cakes. “Mother would put each cake in a cloth napkin, and we would take them to the neighbors. What a memory. The whole street was filled with Jewish children carrying cakes,” she says. But other survivors remember that they were being rounded up into ghettoes or concentration camps or were hiding, fleeing or living under false identities when they should have been celebrating Jewish holidays. John Gordon, born in Budapest, Hungary and president of Los Angeles’ branch of Child Survivors of the Holocaust, was only 2 when restrictions against the Jews were enacted. His family’s Purim celebration, fresh cookies and a Megillah reading, was confined to their home. So Café Europa’s parties — “as many as we have funding for,” Fern says — help compensate for survivors’ lost childhoods. But for all older adults, Purim, the holiday that celebrates the survival of the Jewish people, provides an opportunity to reflect, to recapture childhood memories and to create new ones. Elon Sunshine, rabbi-in-residence at Heschel Day School, says, “It’s fascinating that Purim, which is so easily dismissed as a holiday for young children, becomes actually a serious adult-oriented holiday.” And a serious time for fun.