Children's Craft Activities (photo: Maral Antonyan)

Cleveland Armenian Festival a Hit


CLEVELAND — Cleveland’s annual Armenian Festival was hosted by St. Gregory of Narek Armenian Church in Richmond Heights, Ohio on September 17 and 18. The festival, in its 20th year, brought together Armenians and non-Armenians from the local area and throughout the state of Ohio for food and music in the spacious grassy field between St. Gregory of Narek’s church and cultural hall.

From left, Markos Shahbazyan, Mher Mnatsakanyan, and Gokor Galstyan deal with a noise complaint (photo: Harry Kezelian)

The Cleveland community is small but very energetic. The local Armenians come from all parts of the world, all backgrounds, and all walks of life. Young people from Los Angeles or Boston who arrived recently to attend school rub elbows with grandparents who immigrated from the Middle East 40 years ago; American-born grandchildren of the Malatiatsi Genocide survivors who founded the community a hundred years ago work together with relative newcomers from Yerevan and Baku; and everyone seems to get along.

The small size of the community and the friendly Midwestern values have enabled various groups of immigrants to bridge their divides. “We don’t care about those divisions — we are welcoming,” says Parish Council chairwoman Mona Karoghlanian, who organized the Festival along with the rest of her committee.

Fr. Hratch Sargsyan Joins the “Shishing” (photo: Maral Antonyan)

Karoghlanian is practically the one-woman foundation of the Cleveland community. Having served as chair for many years, it is her family legacy and clearly her passion. (She is also a Diocesan Council member.) Born in Cleveland, her grandparents were immigrants from Malatia, like many of the early settlers, and staunch ADL members. “I was telling our [municipal] councilwoman, after the Turkish massacre it was our community’s dream to build a church here. And it took selling red Easter Eggs door to door, but we finally built the church in 1962.” While much of the population today has recently arrived from Armenia, the families that built the church are still the central organizers of much of what goes on, though the relative newcomers seem eager to volunteer and take on new responsibilities.

Dn. Serop Demirjian mans the beer tap (photo: Harry Kezelian)

Even though Karoghlanian grew up attending ADL conventions with her grandfather and joined the organization herself, partisan divides are less important than keeping the Armenians together. “Those divisions don’t matter as much anymore,” says Serop Demirjian, a native of Sasoun, father, grandfather, and deacon of the church. An Antelias-based group in town used to rent space and hold services and events, but they eventually gave up and now everyone in the area goes to St. Gregory. The folks in Cleveland seem to want to avoid the political infighting and bureaucratic nature of Armenian institutions. They run things their way, with little interference from the fast-paced and divisive outside world of the East Coast, Detroit, Chicago and California.

Festival Brings All Together

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

One of the most aspects of the festival is the large amount of non-Armenians in attendance. Karoghlanian estimates that a quarter of festival attendees are non-Armenian neighbors, friends, and colleagues. In particular, community members invite their co-workers or supervisors, and folks who live in the residential area adjacent to the church walk over to enjoy Armenian hospitality. The “guests” are excited to try Armenian foods and some of them stated that they make it a point to come each year. Beef shish kebab, chicken kebab, rice and bulghur pilaf, cheese beoreg, eetch, and other delicacies were for sale along with deserts like pakhlava, khadayif, and ghourabia. The ganach fasoulya (Armenian green bean stew) was particularly well-received. Just as with many other Armenian festivals in the US this year, lamb was not on the menu, seemingly because shortages due to Covid have driven up the price. Instead, the special offering of the day was a version of lule kebab (“kyabab,” as it’s called in Yerevan) made from ground pork and chicken, popular in today’s Armenia.

Deacon Serop Demirjian with a pitcher of “Hye Hefeweizen” (Photo: Maral Antonyan)

Deacon Serop Demirjian, the ever-smiling and friendly pillar of the community who was born in the mountains of Sasoun, Eastern Turkey, long after 1915, and has served as deacon-in-charge during the absence of a priest, manned the beer station. It is difficult to think of something more “Midwest Armenian” than a church food festival commissioning a custom microbrew for their event. The concept, which was the brainchild of church member Peter Zahirsky, was carried out by local brewer Karl Spiesman. This is the fourth year the Festival has had a custom beer; previous renditions have emphasized Armenian fruits such as pomegranate (unsuccessful) and two varieties of apricot (highly successful). This year’s was “Hye Hefeweizen grapefruit Armenian citrus witbeir.” Grapefruit is Armenian? Zahirsky admits it’s a stretch, but justifies the choice as an homage to the Armenian citrus growers of Fresno.

Zahirsky, like seemingly every community member, has an interesting story that might seem atypical to the rest of “Armenian America.” Raised in southern Ohio as the son of a Russian Orthodox priest, his mother is Armenian – and the daughter of the St. Gregory of Narek parish’s original godfather. Moving back to Cleveland as an adult, he re-immersed himself in community and Armenian Church life and is a staunch supporter of Armenia. And he views St. Gregory of Narek parish as his grandfather’s legacy of survival from Ottoman brutality.

Pakhlava and Khadayif

Little (Eastern) Armenia

Connection to the homeland runs deep in Cleveland, which is known for its high percentage of relatively recent Armenian immigrants from Yerevan and Baku. But the Midwestern atmosphere makes some aspects of community life feel more like a transported Armenian village in Lori or Artsakh than like the streets of Glendale. During the festival, the men congregated around their kebab grills and sipped vodka while preparing the meat. Women danced to the music of the three-piece band, comprised of Boston’s Mher Mnatsakanyan (duduk, clarinet) and Markos Shahbazyan (vocal, drum) with Cleveland’s own Grigor “Gokor” Galstyan on accordion. Galstyan is an old hand at this — he is prepared for almost any kind of Armenian song and harmonizes with vigor. And perhaps unexpectedly, he enjoys the music performed on oud by American-born Armenians. “When I was a young man in Yerevan, I played in a group with myself, a duduk player, an oud player, and a kamancha player,” he states, “what a sound!”

The band performed a genre not heard very often in the Eastern US, at least not live — authentic contemporary Eastern Armenian folk music. This music, which features the clarinet backed by heavy accordion and the rhythmic dhol drum, is the type played by villagers or at outdoor picnics in Armenia. Listeners of Anatolian-Armenian folk music can readily relate to the soulful strains of clarinet and the heavy minor-key melodies. Those who have visited Armenia will recall this music from madagh picnics and similar events. For natives of the Republic, it is the sound of home. Well known songs such as Yarn-Anush, Sareri Hovin Mernem, and others followed in succession. The Hayastantsi women danced in their Armenian solo naz bar style, and as the music picked up, the American Armenians led their sprightly shourch bars which the others joined in. The scene was a true mélange of the different regions and backgrounds of Armenian culture as shouts of “aman!” were heard from one direction and “tsavet danem!” from the other.

14 L to R: Local violinist Haig Hovsepian, Deacon Ari Terjanian, Mr. Ara Pounardjian directing traffic in the parking lot

The height of musical emotion was reached when a slim, unassuming young woman with straight brown hair emerged from the group and approached the microphone. The young lady was Lusine Makaryan, a 25-year-old native of Yerevan, married and a mother of one girl with a second child on the way. As she lifted up her voice in a tearful ballad telling of the conflict that broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2016, those gathered were visibly moved, whether or not they could understand all the words. Clarinet virtuoso Mnatsakanyan didn’t miss a beat. He followed Makaryan’s impromptu song with a soulful interpretation of the heartrending folk song Sareri Hovin Mernem.

Something for Everyone

Mnatsakanyan’s group was not the only musical entertainment. On Friday, the first night of the event, a talented young musician from Erie, Penn., named Nicholas Nasibyan performed on keyboard with a drummer and various guests. Nasibyan is not a typical keyboard player heard at Armenian events. He is a talented jazz pianist who uses the keyboard as a versatile and outdoor instrument. Recently reawakening to his Artsakh-Armenian roots, organizers said that Nasibyan learned some new repertoire in a few days (mostly Soviet Era pop-jazz pieces, like the famous Ov Tu Keghetsig) and was performing Armenian music in public for the first time at the festival.

No article about Cleveland would be complete without a reference to Fr. Hratch Sargsyan and his Yeretzgin, Naira Azatyan. Yeretzgin Naira acts a leader for her fellow Hayastantsi ladies in their service to the community and as a maternal figure to all, the organization of the food sale operations of the Festival being under her direction.

Tables Enjoying the Armenian Festival (Photo: Harry Kezelian)

Fr. Hratch, the spiritual and communal leader of Cleveland’s Armenians, combines a high level of education and deep spiritual and personal understanding necessary to thrive in today’s American climate with a “regular guy” personality that endears him to his fellow natives of the Republic of Armenia. In other words, he is an excellent fit for a community that includes multi-generational families trying to hold onto their roots and recent arrivals from Armenia who have their own issues and concerns. With his empathetic demeanor he welcomed all visitors and made sure that everything went well during the weekend, as well as giving church tours. In his Sunday sermon, he thanked the volunteers and stressed that the reason they do the Festival is not just for money, but to show hospitality and welcome to others. Space does not allow us to continue to discuss the features such as visiting dancers from the local ballet, children’s crafts, and more.

The festival was so successful that the organizers ran out of food. As the stations shut down and the volunteers began to clean up the tables, someone announced that it was visiting dudukist Mher Mnatsakanyan’s birthday. Visibly moved, after the singing of Happy Birthday, Mnatsakanyan was dragged off to engage in vodka toasts with the grilling crew. As twilight gathered, it seemed one couldn’t tell if one was in Ohio or the Ararat Valley. The stars began to appear. “Tsavet danem, aghper,” someone said, “Mher jan, to your health.” Everyone raised a glass.


Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: