Sunday, February 28, 2010

In the midst of joy, there is pain

How ironic that today is a day both of celebration and mourning. It is not only my birthday, but also the Jewish holiday of Purim, considered the most joyous on the Hebrew calendar. While my birthday is but a minor cause for celebration, Purim is a major cause for revelry and raucous behavior. It is mandated that everyone must give to charity, donate food items to friends and listen to the reading of the Book of Esther, the scroll which recalls the struggle of the Persian Jews who had been marked for destruction. The Persian queen Esther, also known as Hadassah to the Jewish people, is a pivotal character in the story. It is through her supplication to the king on behalf of her people that the evil Haman and his sons and henchmen are killed in the place of the Jews and her cousin Mordechai is raised up and given the rank of counselor to the king. Much of the public reading of the scroll, also called a megillah, involves drinking so that the names of Mordechai and Haman are not easily distinguished one from the other. Groggers or other devices for noisemaking are used to mark the mention of the villain's name and children in particular delight in being allowed to act out in synagogue while the scroll is read. The Purim scroll is a lengthy one, usually requiring a period of about 45 minutes to read from beginning to end. Because the wording is particularly intricate, abstruse and complicated, many people referred to having heard "the whole megillah," an expression that has taken on the somewhat negative meaning of dealing with a long, rambling act. Some might recall the animated Hanna-Barbera TV character Magilla Gorilla (seen above), a tongue-in-cheek misspelling for a Saturday morning cartoon show that had nothing to do with its star save the fact it rhymed with gorilla. I suspect it was the work of a Jewish writer with a wry sense of humor who came up with that ditty and convinced studio heads William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, neither of whom were Jewish, to go with that name to market the toy figures they hoped to sell when their show hit the airwaves (the show's sponsor was Ideal Toys). In any event, Purim has always been a day to celebrate the redemption of the Persian Jews and the capricious nature of life. The date of the 14th of Adar was the arbitrary date selected by purim (lots) on which all of the Persian Jews were marked for death. Jews in walled cities like Jerusalem celebrate it on the 15th of Adar. Instead, it turned out to be the day when Haman, his sons and other cronies were dispatched. The volatility of life is therefore to be celebrated. That leads me to the reason for mourning. Today is also the day that I say goodbye to a member of my extended family. My brother-in-law's father passed away in La Crosse, Wisconsin on Friday. At 92, Fred Feran lived a long life by anyone's figuring. Yet, like the Persian Jews who might have all perished were it not for a change in politics, Fred survived despite the threat from without in his native Slovakia. Born during the waning days of World War I, Feran, whose surname was at first Feuermann, grew up in turbulent times. The threat of Nazism reared its head when he was but a teenager and he and his brother Erwin fled their homeland in search of the Jewish homeland, then the British protectorate known as Palestine. As the inevitable war approached, the two brothers spent four months at sea aboard an illegal Greek ship trying to convince British authorities they should be allowed entry into the country. Finally granted permission, Feran worked as an engineer in the vital oil industry and later enlisted in the Czechoslovakian Overseas Army in Jerusalem and England during World War II. After the war ended, he was posted to Brazil, where he met his future wife Jean (Jirina), also a Czechoslovakian émigré and Holocaust survivor. The two eventually settled in New Orleans, where Fred and Jean adopted their Americanized names and he became a skilled clockmaker, working for a cousin who owned a jewelry store. Feran was so noted an artisan that huge grandfather clocks and other intricate time-keeping mechanisms were regularly shipped to and from his shop. His two children, Russell and Maureen, married and had children of their own. The Ferans became active in the New Americans Club, an organization of Holocaust survivors who had embarked on new lives in New Orleans. After retiring, Feran began to slowly lose his mental faculties due to Alzheimer's Disease and the condition was only worsened after he and his wife were forced to relocate due to the loss of their home during the time following Hurricane Katrina. Living out his remaining days in La Crosse seems unfortunate for a man whose life symbolizes struggle and overcoming the odds. Today Fred comes home to be buried and I will be present at that funeral and celebrate a life well spent, but a life that might well have been different had the times he lived under not been as trepidatious and threatening. Those who have been touched by Fred's story might want to consider a donation to the Maureen and Robert Freedland Fund for Shoah Studies of the La Crosse Public Education Foundation founded by both Ferans and named for their daughter and their son-in-law, who will administer the funds. The address is P.O. Box 1811, La Crosse, Wisconsin 54602-1811. Such a gift would be in keeping with the spirit of the holiday where giving to charity is encouraged and I would personally regard note of such bequests as among the best presents I could ever receive on my birthday. Chag Purim!

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