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Making Others' Stories His Own

THEATER

In a one-man show, Howard Hersh Felder shares what he learned from Holocaust survivors.

March 08, 1998|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

From her, Felder borrowed a teacup that he uses in the show. The teacup comes from a set of dishes Lewin's mother packed away in a box before the war. Lewin's mother gave the box to a Gentile neighbor, instructing the neighbor to keep the box and to give it to any family member who returned for it. Lewin, the only member of her family to survive the camps, did return for the box. "Everyone I knew drank from this teacup. This is all that's left," Lewin told Felder.

Felder says the cup is something "you guard with your life" between performances, but it is one of several in the set, and Lewin herself serves her guests with them at home. So he uses it too.

Felder says he can't quite explain his profound connection with older people, his link with the Holocaust, as well as issues of survivor's guilt. But then, he does. His survivor friends would probably tell him he thinks too much.

"I come from Montreal, which is essentially an immigrant society, in terms of the Jewish community," says Felder, nephew of the late Jewish scholar Rabbi Gedalia Felder of Toronto. His father, from Poland, is president of Best Kosher Foods, Canada; his mother was from Hungary. "I grew up in a very Orthodox Jewish community. We spoke Hungarian and Yiddish at home, which is very unusual for someone my age," he says. "It is a real experience to grow up as part of a real shtetl, a real European village. We kept Sabbath and did things like they did in Europe, except with washing machines.

"Growing up with all these grandmas and grandpas, these bubbes and zaydes, you become very used to what's valuable at a very young age. And these people encountered true evil.

"That, coupled with the experience that my mother got very sick when I was young--she died when she was 35, of cancer--somehow gave me a little bit of a jump on old age. . . . There is something very specific about someone who has lost a parent or a sibling. I don't think I can explain it in words, but you tend to recognize people who that has happened to, immediately."

Felder may also get his sense of being older from packing a lifetime into his 29 years. A child actor in film, television and Yiddish and English theater in Montreal, Felder became serious in his early teens about being a concert pianist.

"When my mother got sick and passed away, there was this necessity to do something real, to really escape," he says. "When I analyze it now, it was because they took my mother away from me when I was a baby, so I wanted something that was mine, that no one could take away from me."

At 13, Felder entered Montreal's McGill University school of music, where he studied music, theater arts and voice. At 18, he began dividing his time between Montreal and New York, where he took private concert studies with Juilliard's Jerome Lowenthal; he also studied conducting and received vocal coaching.

Felder began touring North America as a pianist before age 20; he made his concerto debut in 1989 in Britain with George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which was to become a signature piece for him, and which he performs in "Sing!" In 1994, Felder was named a Baldwin Artist, giving up the title in 1994 when he was named a Steinway Concert Artist--both honors awarded by the piano companies.

Throughout his piano career, Felder has continued to act, direct, produce musical recordings and create stage shows. A recent effort is the musical "Noah's Ark," a collaboration with partner Campbell. The show received a semi-staged presentation with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic last June, and the world premiere is slated for sometime this year in Los Angeles.

Felder wants to make sure that audiences know "Sing!" is about hope. "It's about survival; it's not about depression--you never hear about people dying and getting killed," he says. "And if we do, it's almost in a funny way, because these people have such an incredible will to live."

*

"SING! A MUSICAL JOURNEY," Freud Playhouse, UCLA campus, Sunset Boulevard at Hilgard Avenue, Westwood. Dates: Wednesday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; next Sunday, 2 p.m. Prices: Wednesday, $50; other performances, $30. Phone: (310) 825-2101.

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