Oakland festival celebrates Armenian culture through music, dance and food
on October 6, 2011
Armenian Americans may be one of the Bay Area’s less-noticed ethnic groups, but this Friday and Saturday at the Armenian Bazaar & Food Festival, their rich cultural legacy will be on full display for anyone interested in learning more.
“This event is for everybody, not just Armenians,” said Father Hovel Ohanyan, Parish Priest of the St. Vartan Armenian Apostolic Church in Oakland, which has hosted this event annually for more than five decades. “The purpose is to present our culture, our history, and our church to the community.”
Friday and Saturday’s event will be a showcase of Armenian culture, Ohanyan says. Both days will feature Armenian music and dance performances, and a variety of spice-infused Mediterranean dishes and appetizers, including stuffed grape leaves, called farma; cheese or spinach-stuffed pastries, called beoreg; lamb, beef and chicken kebabs; and imam bayildi, a meat and eggplant dish typical of the region.
Armenians, who have historically lived in the Caucus and Eastern Turkey, at the juncture between the Middle East and Eastern Europe, began immigrating to the United States in large numbers through the 1950’s, with an especially large number settling in California’s Central Valley and Southern California. In the city of Los Angeles alone, nearly 65,000 people claimed Armenian heritage in the 2000 Census. By comparison, the East Bay has a relatively small population, with about 3,000 people claiming Armenian heritage in the same year.
Armenia was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as a national religion, and the Armenian people today are descendants of some of the first Christians in history. Not surprisingly, the Church has long been central to Armenian culture and identity, often lying at the center of Armenian immigrant communities in the United States.
In addition to a range of cultural activities for families and children, Friday and Saturday will also feature tours of the church itself by Father Ohanyan.
Oakland’s Armenian Apostolic Parish was founded by community members in 1926, and the St. Vartan’s church was first built and consecrated in 1932 on the corner of 23rd Street and E. 17th as a place to house it, according to the church’s website. Through the 1940’s, the church saw its membership grow with successive waves of immigration. The current building, modeled after a traditional Armenian design, was constructed in 1957 and remains the only Armenian Apostolic church in the East Bay.
Today, church liturgies are offered in Armenian with sermons in English. Father Ohanyan – who is from Armenia and serves as St. Vartan’s seventh Parish Priest – estimates that around 2,000 Armenian-Americans still worship in the Bay Area, though the exact size of his congregation is hard to gauge because parishioners tend to go switch their attendance between St. Vartan’s and the other affiliated churches in the region.
“All the members belong to all the churches,” he said. “One Sunday they’ll be here, the next, over there.”
The Armenian Bazaar & Food Festival will take place at St. Vartan’s Church at 650 Spruce Street near Oakland High School on Friday from 5:30pm to midnight, and continue Saturday from 1:00 pm to midnight. Father Ohanyan says the Church’s doors will be wide open for all to come.
“We have a history of over six thousand years,” he said. “It’s a rich culture, and we are continuing it with our friends and our neighbors here in America. For this festival, we are inviting everybody to come and enjoy the hard work of the people who built this community.”
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