Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The sharing of faith, culture and savory food

The icon of Jesus the Pantocrator,
inside the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension,
in Oakland, California.

The wonderful aromas of souklavia and loukoumades wafted through the air. There were sounds of traditional Greek music and shouts of "Opa!" could be heard on the grounds of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension earlier this month during the 2013 Oakland Greek Festival, now in its 41st year.

"We are proud to live in a country which allows us to preserve our rich Hellenic culture and still be Americans," wrote Father Thomas J. Zaferes, Dean of the Ascension Cathedral, in a letter to friends and patrons of the Greek Festival. "Each year we offer this celebration to the Bay Area so that you may experience a culture that is not only historic and profound, but a culture which celebrates life." 

While Greece, a small country with only 11 million people, is half a world away from Oakland, its wonderful culinary and musical culture has spread over much of the world as well as its Orthodox Christian faith ~ not only in Europe, but also throughout Africa, Asia and, even, Australia. "These communities are united in a common heritage and a common faith, Orthodox Christianity," wrote Father Zaferes.

Each year in mid-May, through the Oakland Greek Festival, the Ascension Cathedral community shares some of the deeper aspects of culture, fellowship and faith. It can viewed and experienced through exploring the interior of the cathedral, which is located at the heart of the festival grounds in the Oakland hills (near where we live), as well as through the enjoyment of the vibrant music and, of course, the savory and delicious food.

My wife and I attended the festival's opening night. We enjoyed an a la carte dinner of souvlakia (chicken shish kebobs), spanakopita and tiropita (spinach and cheese quiche), loukoumades (yeast-risen dough puffs drizzled with honey syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon), and baklava (a rich, sweet pastry comprised of many layers of phyllo pastry filled with chopped nuts).

While walking the compact festival grounds (which afforded us a spectacular view of the Bay Area sunset), we delighted in the upbeat sounds of the bouzouki (a Greek musical instrument that looks like a banjo and sounds like a mandolin) that was featured in two different Greek and Mediterranean bands, and we also watched a group of enchanted Greek dancers performing traditional village dances on the cathedral plaza.

Finally, our evening included a few quieter moments inside the Ascension Cathedral. We sat in a pew in the middle of the nave and heard a selection of traditional Greek Orthodox hymns sung by the Ascension choir. As we listened, I couldn't help but admire the icon of Jesus the Pantocrator (or Almighty) above us and the rest of the interior art and beauty of this sacred space.

Indeed, for a couple of hours, we enjoyed participating in this annual celebration of Hellenic culture, Greek heritage and philoxenia (Greek for hospitality) in appreciation of the importance of keeping traditions and a trusting religion alive and strong.

To learn more about the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension, see:

To see a panoramic view of the interior of the Ascension Cathedral:

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