Ohio State University March 1,2 2002
Why Perpetuate the Hellenic Culture as Americans
Lecture for Modern Greek Studies Program
Good evening and thank you for inviting me to speak to you on the campus from where my wife Kimberly has so many fond memories as a past graduate. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to share with you my memories of being Greek in America and to examine this in the same way the ancient Athenians would have- critically, but in a way to challenge your thought process and open up your mind to new approaches.
Admittedly, these are theories based on life's experiences and I think it is important to give you a sense of that experience, so you better understand why I have come to this perspective.
My mother, Garifalia, immigrated to the U.S. in 1940, due to WWII. My father was born in New York of first generation Greek parents in 1927, but two years later, moved to Athens, where he attended Athens College, but spent his summers on the island of Lesvos, in his father's village of Ploumari. He too returned to the U.S. as a 13 year old in 1940 due to war.
My parents met at a Greek owned resort hotel in the Catskills called the Sunset Springs in 1947. Married two years later, they were set to begin their life's journey in New York, surrounded by their entire family, in a community where you really didn't have to speak English. My grandmother, who came to NY in 1940, died in 1990, never having learned English. She got along just fine thank you.
Three months into the marriage, my father received a job offer from Ford Motor Company in Detroit and thus began our eighteen-year exodus from New York that took us from Detroit to Ann Arbor to Cleveland. My mother went from a Greek world into the post WWII American suburban world. It took her time. She didn't learn to drive until 1960 and there were no Greek newspapers in Ann Arbor. But with time and for survival, she began to see the fruits of blending two cultures, and thus, we began to receive those benefits.
The first thing that I remember about being Greek was its uniqueness- the different Easter date, the language, the music, the different food, but more importantly, the special ness that was attached to it by our own peer group. Whether a relative big community like Detroit or a small community in Ann Arbor, there was something special about other Greeks or Greek-Americans. It wasn't that they espoused Socration philosophy or that they described heroic efforts to maintain the culture during the Ottoman 400 year conquest. No, it was something more. They had a passion for doing, they had their distinctive personalities, yet, they blended in so well with their surroundings.
They jabbed their hands at you in animated discussions about why the world this and that, their faces shined with the job of discovery of knowledge through conversation or reading and they liked to be together. They shared cultural experiences of church, food, music, language, custom and history and it was pleasurable and special in an American world that was also pleasurable and special in its way- freedom, education ladder, material wealth, cultural exchange, opportunity for all.
Now, I admit, I didn't really recognize all of this as a ten year old, and I had moments of rejection of both cultures growing up- hated Greek school, felt suffocated by too many Greek functions, constrained by a conservative religion during the 60's and 70's, conflicted in a marriage to an American-Greek, but there were always signals around me that helped me recognize the uniqueness of having Hellenism in my life. Most of my friends were and are not Greek-American, yet, they loved what I had and lamented that they did not have it within their subcultures. As I began to travel worldwide in 1980, wherever I went, from India to Indiana, I would find Greeks-Homer was right, you won't find a more nomadic people of this earth who maintain their uniqueness, yet are viewed by the locals as one of them, and are happy and comfortable with that duality.
It all came together for me when I began work on the television documentary, the Greek-Americans. By 1997, I had been doing intense television work for two decades and interviewed thousands of people and done at least 700 productions. Yet, as I began calling people from around the country from my scrapbook of clippings over the years of last names with "as" or "os", I was dumbstruck by the incredible thread of similarity. As local NY TV anchor Ernie Anastos said on camera, "Whether it's the hot dog vendor in New York or a Ph D from MIT or a Coloradoan rancher, they share the same spirit". Now Ernie defined it in what I called a perfect TV roundtable- wide sweeping in less than 5 seconds. We're in academia so let me give you more.
The spirit of Hellenism was highly developed 3500 years ago, why and how that happened is another lecture, but here is my general theory- what was said and taught by those people called Greeks was not only recorded and spawned forward throughout civilization, but as the rest of the world outnumbered us dramatically (population) and outpowered us ( Romans, Visigoths, Normans, Christians, Muslims, British, Americans), we took it upon ourselves to protect the originality and develop more within our group. This has not been an easy task and there were moments in history where it looked like we were buried and gone.
But, unlike the Egyptians, the Romans, the Chinese and other ancient cultures, we have really preserved and nourished our culture. And in doing so, what we have is, for its size (probably numbering no more than 1.5 million), is an extraordinary group of Greek-Americans.
So that is why we send our children to church, to Greek school, why we make our individual attempts to read them the classics, to recall the stories of their grandparents, to dance and eat Greek with them, and to work harder than most, learn more than others, and participate and contribute mighty in America.
That is why we are here today and why programs like this one are starting to grow and flourish. In 1970, I was told on many occasions that my generation would become fully American- that the culture would disappear. Nobody in their right mind would want to give up the special ness and uniqueness that is being Greek-American, and that is why our culture will live for the ages. Yes, we need to work hard against our small numbers, but look what you get in return. Thanks for listening.