March 24, 2005
Holiday Frivolity for Young at Heart
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 hamantaschen, 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," said Faye Sharabi, activity director for Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles' Valley Storefront, an adult day health-care center in North Hollywood. 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," said 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 said.
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 hamantaschen 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," said second-grade teacher Soli Friedman. "They see that the kids care about them and that they are not left alone."
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, which 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," she said. "What a memory. The whole street was filled with Jewish children carrying cakes."
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.
"It's fascinating that Purim, which is so easily dismissed as a holiday for young children, becomes actually a serious adult-oriented holiday," said Elon Sunshine, rabbi-in-residence at Heschel Day School.
And a serious time for fun.