Bay Area Assyrians keep their identity and culture alive with food, language and church

By Joe Rodriguez
20th Annual Assyrian Food FestivalMembers of the Damara Dance group perform at the 20th Annual Assyrian Food Festival at the Assyrian Church of the East Mar Yosip Khnanisho Parish
There’s a saying about culture and national identity — we are what we eat — that rang loud and clear Sunday when an Assyrian church in San Jose put on its 20th annual food festival.

“Wherever we travel, we bring our recipes,” said Helen Nissan, who belongs to the Assyrian Church of the East in San Jose’s Willow Glen neighborhood.

She was cutting a tray of baklava, a sweet, flaky desert, in the church’s large kitchen where 20 or so women cooked trays and huge pots of Middle Eastern dishes they had learned from their mothers and grandmothers. Nissan’s family recipe for baklava is well-traveled, too, coming from Iran and before that, from Iraq, where the family had lived until it was time to flee religious persecution. But enough of that. Sunday and Saturday were for celebrating food and life.

Hundreds of Assyrian Americans and food lovers enjoyed a sun-splashed festival dedicated to Assyrian food that looked, smelled and tempted the palate as much as food from Iran, Iraq and Syria, the modern states descended from ancient Mesopotamia.


Like Jews, Assyrians are a well-traveled people — which is putting their history mildly. The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Assyria in 609 BCE and destroyed Jerusalem, throwing the Jews into slavery and Assyrians into stateless existence more or less since.

“All these different foods come from all these countries where we’ve

lived, ” Nissan said. “They became part of our identity.”

Outside in the church lot, visitors lined up for delicacies like dolma — grape and cabbage leaves stuffed with beef and herbs, and asheh reshteh — a soup made with lentils, garbanzo beans, noodles and spices. Inside the air-conditioned church hall, they feasted on shurwa — a beef and potato stew, and kifte — meatballs serve on rice. The inspired cooks also served piraski, a Russian pastry stuffed with beef, potatoes and onions.

“Believe it or not, Russia was one of the countries we also went to,” said Mary Yadegar, the president of the women’s auxiliary who was in charge of the festival kitchen.

Except for the chicken and lamb kabobs grilled by a few men outside, the Middle Eastern and Russian dishes were cooked by Assyrian women, all of them members of the church, who spoke to each other in their ancient tongue. Earlier Sunday morning, two infants were baptized in a ceremony conducted entirely in Assyrian and Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

;We are alive’

As stateless people, Assyrians rely on food, language and church as the pillars of their culture and group identity, according to festival

Akadina Yadegar, 17, center, and Atorina Samuel, 17, members of the Damara Dance group, perform at the 20th annual Assyrian Food Festival at The Assyrian Church of the East Mar Yosip Khnanisho Parish of San Jose on Sunday. (Josie Lepe/Staff)

coordinator Elizabeth Zia-Estensen.


“This is a cultural experience,” she said under a shady spot during a break from her many duties. “I don’t want you to come to this festival just for the food.”

Her father, David Zia, had left Iraq to study engineering in the United States and stayed, moving to San Jose in 1959. He was a key player in the building of the church on Minnesota Avenue. About 450 families now belong to the church, where children learn to speak and write Assyrian and Aramaic on Fridays and Sundays.

“There were only five Assyrian families in San Jose when I was growing up,” Zia said. “Now I hear Assyrian being spoken in public everywhere.”

On Sunday, the second and final afternoon of the festival, the cooks in the church kitchen were still working as fast as they could to fill the plates of hungry visitors with food that didn’t just taste good.

“We want to show everybody that we are alive,” Yadegar said. “We are still alive even though we don’t have a country