Coming Together in Skokie: Community unites around Assyrian culture

dtcommonstreamsstreamservercls.jpgBy MIKE ISAACS
Skokie Library Director Carolyn Anthony (left) talks about books chosen for Coming Together in Skokie’s six-week program with Susan Van Dusen and Mayor George Van Dusen next to her. Assyrian culture is this year’s focus. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media
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Program packed with six weeks of events
  Four books tagged as gateway to Assyrian culture

Updated: January 16, 2012 8:01PM

Alen Takhsh admits that as a child, he didn’t take his father all too seriously when he would burst with pride about the importance of his Assyrian heritage.

“Any word, any concept, anything I may have held in my hands, he would find a way to tell me how the Assyrians were behind that,” the Skokie lawyer recalled. “I mean that literally.”

Takhsh said he tried to run away from these conversations when he was a kid; he was young and he really didn’t care all that much, he admits.

“However, growing up, growing older, I soon realized he was right,” Takhsh said.

Assyrian history is tied to the world’s first irrigation system, the first codification of human rights, the fact that there are 360 degrees in a circle and 180 degrees in a triangle, the first musical note and the oldest written literature known to humankind.

“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Takhsh said.

Coming Together in Skokie’s six weeks of programming starting Jan. 29 feels more like a glacier than a tip of an iceberg. It’s a comprehensive and provocative collection of eclectic programs all tied to Assyrian culture and history and aimed at all ages.

Takhsh promises “the journey of a lifetime” and one that takes visitors thousands of years into the past.

“It will show you where we are, where we came from and the contributions that we have made to civilization,” he said.

Third celebration

This is the third edition of what has become an annual community-wide happening that kicks off the new year in Skokie. Celebrating the remarkable ethnic diversity that has come to define the village, Coming Together in Skokie points its spotlight at a different culture every year.

The common denominator in each year’s program is literature, a carefully selected book or books that inspire many of the 30-plus events that are planned.

The program was developed from a series of informal lunches among key women with diverse backgrounds in Skokie.

“We felt that through reading — through literature — we could give people a greater understanding of each other,” said Susan Van Dusen, one of the founding five and wife of the mayor.

Other founders included Skokie Library Executive Director Carolyn Anthony, Niles Township High School District 219 Superintendent Nanciann Gatta, Indian Community of Niles Township President Usha Kamaria and Sheila Gilani of the Skokie Holiday Inn.

The women knew that Skokie, among the most ethnically diverse cities and villages in the state, already had gained recognition for how it celebrates the different backgrounds of its citizens. Its annual Festival of Cultures has served as a model for other communities, for example.

The founders wanted to continue the spirit of such a program but not simply to repeat it.

“We looked for ways to celebrate our diversity but not in a one- or two-day festival, which is wonderful, but we wanted a more intense experience,” Van Dusen said. “We had no idea whether it would work or not but we went with it. Our expectations were met and then exceeded manyfold.”

Coming Together in Skokie, which has attracted about 3,000 visitors in each of its first two years, continues to grow.

It first focused on Indian culture in 2010 by featuring one book. Last year, it raised the stakes a bit with the Filipino culture by adding secondary books to the lineup and reaching out to younger schoolchildren as well as its older audience.

Ancient culture

This year’s third Coming Together in Skokie can be considered the most ambitious program yet because it tackles a culture thousands of years old and people who have no country to call their own.

That may be why the founders think of this edition as more scholarly than ever before.

The Assyrian version of Coming Together in Skokie features not one but four books including Gilgamesh, the oldest literature known to humankind; not one but two author appearances over the next six weeks; and several sessions led by scholars with expertise in Assyrian culture and history.

If the latter makes you want to run for the hills, conjuring up memories of dry college and high school lectures, have no fear. The discussions, some of them inspired by the featured books, promise to serve as provocative time travel machines into a past where so much of civilization began.

The program schedule, outlined in booklets available throughout the village, is packed with varied events such as traveling exhibitions, book discussions, hands-on crafts, festivals, reading nights, music, authentic native cuisine and more.

‘Mutual history’

“Coming Together in Skokie is a program that brings all of our people as well as all of our institutions together to learn about ourselves, and each other, to experience our mutual history as well as our humanity,” said Mayor George Van Dusen at a press conference last week at the Skokie Library.

What became apparent there was the program, even in its planning stages, brings so much of Skokie together.

“I can’t begin to describe to you the way we grow,” Susan Van Dusen said. “It cannot be measured. But a synergy happens.”

More than 90 languages are spoken in Skokie homes so there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of cultures for the Coming Together in Skokie program.

“We chose the Assyrian community because they are a vibrant, strong positive force in our community.” Van Dusen said. Even without their own country, she added, “they work so hard to preserve their rich culture that we were extremely impressed.”

Educational value

For educators, the program has provided invaluable opportunities for learning.

Gatta said that research shows community-wide partnerships benefit students.

“When parents and community members work together to support learning, students actually achieve higher grades and test scores, they enroll in higher level programs, they adapt better to school and attend more regularly, they improve their social skills and they graduate and go on to higher education,” she said.

Oakton Community College Professor of Library Services Rose Novil called the program “a larger picture of what a learning community should be.”

Pride in heritage

The program also unites and empowers cultures in the community and allows them to take pride in their heritage.

Following a brief film by Assyrian Sargon Saadi shown at last week’s press conference, the organizers opened up the floor for questions.

“I don’t have a question but wow,” said Sarah Newey Benjamin who is part of a weekly Assyrian radio show in Chicago. “I am so excited.”

The hope is that so, too, will be all the residents of Skokie.

Organizers of Coming Together in Skokie want to see a large turnout that extends well beyond just the Assyrian community.

‘‘This year we will learn about this interesting and early civilization,” said Mayor Van Dusen. “And I encourage everybody in the village to participate because you will learn not just about the important Assyrian culture, the background, the history, but in that voyage you will also discover something about yourself.”