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The Holiday Season

On Saturday, December 6th, we attended two Christmas celebrations for organizations that were quite different but thankfully so. The first one was for Cleveland-Bratislava Sister Cities, Inc. at St. Joseph's Family Center in Brecksville. This was the second time that we have attended this event and want to attend it again next year. There were only 30 or so people there so the gathering was relatively intimate and cozy. We try to attend each monthly meeting of this organization because we learn something about the Slovak people and their culture each time we go.

At this holiday party, we sat with Ms. Ann Tilisky, Ms. Elisie Krajny, and Mr. Steve Krajny and had a good visit just like we did last year. Almost everyone knew each other and people of all ages were there. We were entertained by Mr. Walt Mahovlich and the Harmonia Band and Ms. Beata Fedoriouk, from the First Catholic Slovak Union, sang some beautiful Christmas carols in both English and Slovakian.

We liked talking to Mr. Joe Klucho who has visited Slovakia 11 times and has dual citizenship. We liked hearing about how Mr. Klucho once visited the village of Rajecka Lesna (where his parents are from) and brought with him some baseball equipment which he gave to some local youngsters who didn't know quite what to do with it because they were not familiar with the sport. Mr. Klucho enjoyed sitting back and watching the young people at first try to play baseball the way he showed them before finally having a good time by simply kicking the baseball around. We are looking forward to hearing more about Mr. Klucho's adventures, including a year teaching English in Puchov, when he speaks before the organization on April 13, 2015.

We enjoyed the small, intimate nature of the Slovak party but towards evening we were in the mood for something a little bigger and we got it...

Our next event was the 5th Annual Christmas Party of the Jamaican Cultural Association which was held at Tizzano's Party Center in Euclid. Unlike the Slovakian party, this one was quite large with at least 200 people present and all through the night Jamaican music was played that had a terrific beat to it.

Fortunately, we had met Ms. Kameika Bruce, Public Relations Officer, earlier this year at the Jamaican Picnic, and she was more than happy to take us around and introduce us to the people that she knew. We also got to sit with Ms. Bruce as well as with Mr. Delroy Bryan, the President, and his wife, Mrs. Ina Bryan. Both Ms. Bruce and Mrs. Bryan attended the annual Holiday Park of Margaret W. Wong and Associates earlier in the day and very much enjoyed it; they particularly liked the way that Ms. Margaret W. Wong spent time welcoming all of her guests. 

There were delegations there from Detroit, Cincinnati, and Toledo present at this event whose the guest speaker was Mr. Alton A. Tinker; Vice President and Portfolio Manager at Key Bank and a Bedford Heights Councilman; who talked about how his mother and his wife (both were there) were inspirations to him. Along with his mother and his sister, Mr. Tinker immigrated to the United States from Jamaican when he was twelve and settled in the inner city. His mother refused to go on public assistance and worked hard to support her family and told her children that "education can get you out of poverty" so today all four of her children have at least a Bachelor of Arts degree.

In addition, Mr. Tinker credited his wife, Lynnette, for encouraging him to seek public office and run successful for Bedford Heights City Council. We spoke to Mr. Tinker who told us that he really admires Ms. Margaret W. Wong for being very supportive of community events like the Cleveland Urban Film Festival for which he is the Director of Fund Development.

We also met Ms. Jossett Palache, a fascinating person who left Jamaica years ago and lived in Paris for several years where she worked for the Dutch Ambassador as an au pere. This position enabled her to travel with his family and see most of Europe. Finally, in 1969 she immigrated to the United States and became part of a family. Today she has stepchildren living in London, Ireland, and Spain and her son, Everett is Director of Soccer Programming in North Ridgeville.

During dinner we spoke to Mr. and Mrs. Bryan. They immigrated to the United States in 1991 and became United States citizens in 1994. Mr. Delroy Bryan workds for Budzar Industries, Inc. where he started off as a welder before he worked his way up to supervisor. Mrs. Ina Bryan is Director of Residential Services at Welcome House. They like it here in the United States due to the opportunities it has to offer as well the possibilities for upward mobility. Someday, however, they would love to go back to Jamaica again for at least a visit. 

There was excellent food, awards and dancing at this celebration which we liked a lot. 

Moreover, we learned something new when Ms. Bruce told us that the reason that this party was held the first week of December is that as the holidays grow closer the chances of attendance grows less likely due to end-of-the-year obligations and the fact that at least a third of the people there will be traveling to Jamaica to see their familiies and celebrate Christmas with them, not to mention escaping the impending cold, winter weather.

Our first event for Sunday, December 7th, was to attend the weekly service at the West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church on Hilliard in Rocky River where Reverend Kathleen Rolenz offered a compellingly well-timed sermon about the Holiday Season, the question of whether or not we are a Christian nation, and the recent tragic altercations between law enforcement and African American youth.

Out of respect for other faiths, Reverend Rolenz prefers to say "Happy Holidays" to people instead of "Merry Christmas" because she is concerned that those of such faiths as Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism might feel hurt and excluded. She believes in diversity and inclusivity, and that the holidays should be a time for all to come together.

Reverend Rolenz acknowledged that the role of Christianity in the founding of the United States is a very controversial item but she still offered a few "nuggets" concerning the lives and the writings of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson that make the contention that both men viewed religious beliefs as an important resource to be drawn upon but, nevertheless, still favored a strong separation between church and state. She said that she was prompted to talk about this at this time because she had an encounter with a person who said that we should all be saying "Merry Christmas" because the United States is a Christian nation.

Regarding the recent shootings, Reverend Rolenz spoke with great compassion as she said that back in the late 1950's/early 1960's the civil rights movement "broke apartheid" but recent events broke something else and white people are now waking up to the fact that young African American men are often treated differently than other people in similar if not identical circumstances. She went on to say that being a police officer "is more dangerously frightening than ever before" and that "something real is happening and the whole world is watching" to see how we handle this volatile situation.

Thus we need to dig into our spiritual practice and not let the holidays make us crazy with the hustle and bustle but we must slow down instead and see this time as a season of prayer because if we ever need wisdom, it is right now. She concluded by citing the Jewish term, "Tikun" meaning that it is time to repair the world.

We respect these statements by Reverend Rolenz and believe that she couldn't be more right when she called for wisdom in this troubled time, and for making the holidays a season of prayer and meditation as well as something for us all to enjoy regardless of our religious beliefs.

One gathering that we always look forward to attending this time of year is the annual St. Herman House/St. Nicholas Spaghetti Dinner at St. Malachi's Parish Hall. Mr. Dan Jenks and his wife Ms. Debbie Jenks, who own Augie's Pizza and Ribs in North Royalton, have organized this yearly yuletide event for the past 22 years and will continue to do so as long as they are able to. Each year many of the same people volunteer their time and services such as Ms. Julie Bender of Broadview Heights who, along with her brother Mark, spends hours baking 500 pecan, chocolate chip, and sprinkled cookies that are so good that we bought some of them to take to our office.

For only $8.00 attendees get a delicious spaghetti dinner, salad, bread, and dessert as well as entertainment by the "Mud in Yer Eye" band and door prizes. Between 300-400 people were expected to attend this gathering in support of St. Herman's which is, as its website says, "a non-profit, 501C3, charitable organization committed to serving the homeless and needy poor of Ohio City and Inner City Cleveland in a spirit of love and hospitality." We spoke for a long time with its Director, Mr. Paul Finley who told us that St. Herman's served over 73,000 hot meals in the past year and that it is one of the only shelters in Ohio and the United States that serves three hot meals a day, seven days a week. It can house about 28 men a night and its jobs program, "Program Services" partners with local businesses and churches to provide employment for its residents.

While we were there we met Mr. Gary Pritts who has been attending St. Malachi's for about 35 years and has worked with refugees from Somali and Bosnia. We also met Mr. Atkilty Berhane, a young man who immigrated to the United States from the State of Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa about 5 years ago after spending time in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He is Christian Orthodox and likes being in the United States because where he came from was "very bad with fighting". Mr. Berhane is currently looking for a job and is very eager to work. We wished him the best.

As Mr. Finley said to us, "if you provide food and shelter for people it is a good thing but it is a great thing if you can do something more it is a great thing." And that is what St. Herman's does, as Mr. Finley said, "it provides a step towards independence."

After we left St. Malachi, we drove to Wade Oval for the annual "Holiday CircleFest" which featured such things as wagon rides, ice skating, food, and ice sculpting. Plus there was no charge to visit any of the museums in the immediate area such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Botanical Garden, and Western Reserve Historical Society.

It was the Western Reserve Historical Society that we really wanted to go to because, up to this point, we never had the time to take a ride on the renovated carousel from Euclid Beach Park which has been open to the public since November 23rd even though the Wong Family paid for the restoration of one of the horses which we quickly located.

It turned out to be a beautiful white horse with a plaque on the floor next to it saying that it was Horse #51 "Alice Kuan" sponsored by the Wong family. We took a ride on the carousel as the music box played "White Christmas" and then just sat there for a while watching other people ride.

We had a smile on our face as we were leaving so an older gentleman who was there volunteering said to us, "just remember how you smiled, brings back memories, doesn't it?"

Our last event required a drive to Lorain in order to attend the United Slovak Societies annual Christmas Dinner or Vilija.

We had never attended a Vilija before and the notes we were given described it beautifully:

"The Slovak Christmas Eve supper begins when the first star becomes visible in the eastern sky at sundown. This is symbolic for the Star of Bethlehem guiding us to Christ's presence with roots in the Passover supper of the Old Testament. The culinary specialties of this time honored tradition of our ancestry varies only slightly between the regions throughout Slovakia. Preparation of the meal is consistent in that all regions prepare 12 dishes representing the twelve apostles. The dishes symbolize a year-long labor in the field, garden, orchard and barn, with hopes of a more bountiful harvest in the coming year. The Stedry Vecer tradition of our ancestors provides us with the opportunity to celebrate among family and friends. Observing these traditions gives us a sense of identity, pride and belonging, all of which will be passed to future generations. The generous table of assorted symbolic foods prepared for us tonight leans more to the table of Eastern Slovaks. It includes oplatki, honey, garlic, wine, sauerkraut soup, fish, peas, pirohi, babalki, poppyseed roles, fruit and nuts."

Throughout the evening, we were entertained by Mr. Ralph E. Szubski, "the accordion man" and Mr. Gary Chopinski on the piano.

We already knew Mr. Ken Arendt, Vice President of the United Slovak Societies, through our dealing with the First Catholic Slovak Union in Independence but we got to meet Mr. Len Zilko, the President, and Ms. Michele Mager, the Secretary, who spent a long time preparing the decorations and putting them up for this event. Ms. Mager is heavily involved in the Slovak community and, when she heard that we worked for Margaret W. Wong and Associates, she told us that Ms. Wong "does a lot for people."

We shared a table with Mr. John Lengen and his wife, Mrs. Alice Lengen. They were concerned about the possible loss of their heritage, customs, and traditions because older generations are passing now and not too many young people of Slovakian descent in the United States have a Vilija in their homes on Christmas Eve.

Mrs. Lengen told us that in the early years of the last century, Mr. Lengen's parents were born in the United States but they moved to Slovakia and then moved back to the United States in 1921. Mr. Lengen was born in 1928 and in 1938 his parents took the family back to Slovakia for a while, but once again moved back to the United States after Adolf Hitler came to power. Fortunately, they were all United States citizens so their passage was not blocked.

Also sitting at our table was a very nice woman named Bobbi who told us that about 15 years ago her son-in-law immigrated to the United States from Slovakia and received assistance from Ms. Margaret W. Wong.

Sitting at a nearby table was anthropologist Dr. Sally Staruck who did her dissertation on Slovak studies. She spent two years in Slovakia researching and studying their customs and we talked for a couple of minutes about her experiences there.

When the program began, Mr. Zilko called for a moment of silence to acknowledge that several members had passed in the last year and also because December 7th was the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor back in 1941. We then drank a toast to good health, happiness and abundant blessings.

Out & Aboutimwong