Dancers at the 2019 Taste of Armenia (Photo by Gary Rejebian)

Gary Rejebian, who is both an active member of and festival cultural chairman for St. James Armenian Church, 816 Clark St., called his church community’s efforts at staying active during the COVID-19 pandemic “a very long road.”

Like many religious organizations, St. James adapted its service-schedule according to prescribed safety protocols. “But what people don’t easily see is that all the stuff around community life is what gets interrupted,” Rejebian said. “That really affects the [St. James] community’s connections with the larger [Evanston] community. That’s been the hardest part of this COVID business. … Generations of Armenians have grown up in Evanston since the turn of the last century.” 

A hopeful return to normal for St. James members and the entire community will be the 31st installment of its annual Taste of Armenia festival, which takes place Sunday, Aug. 29 from noon-5 p.m.

“Weekend gatherings and picnics are a vital component of the Armenian culture,” Rejebian said. “Replicating that for the community is such a beautiful thing for us. It’s all part of our shared experience.”

St. James held Taste of Armenia virtually in 2020. Rejebian said that an online event “had some interesting components but it wasn’t the same. I admit, the cultural offerings were some of the best we’ve ever done…but nothing replaces that community gathering.”

St. James members were “floating on a wing and a prayer” as they waited for adequate information indicating they should go ahead with a live event this year. “We pulled the whole thing together in earnest on the last two months,” Rejebian added. “It’s a tremendous amount of effort in such a short amount of time.”

A food vendor at the 2019 Taste of Armenia (Photo by Gary Rejebian)

Since Taste of Armenia is always held outdoors, organizers did not need to take many as extra precautions to ensure safe interaction as organizers of indoor events might. Nevertheless, Rejebian said, “prudent restrictions” will be in place: Unvaccinated visitors will be required to have masks, while vaccinated visitors are encouraged to wear them. Booths have also been spaced further apart than normal.

Two dance ensembles are on the schedule: Glenview-based Sardarabad Dance Ensemble of Hamazkayin Chicago and Armenian Dance Company of Chicago. Rejebian said to expect a good selection of Armenian culinary specialties as well, among them lahmajun—consisting of a thin pastry filled with meat, vegetables and herbs—along with shish kebab and filled philo pastries.

Serko Mart in Arlington Heights will also be selling a broad selection of food items such as eggplant salad and fruit preserves. “There are a lot of items they sell direct from Armenia that you can’t find anywhere else,” said Rejebian. 

He added that, in the last 10 years or so, “There’s been an awareness of viniculture in that part of the world,” so glasses and bottles of Armenian wine will also be available, along with Armenian beer. 

About a dozen St. James members formed the “core group” of event organizers, but between 50-75 people are pitching in to staff the event, Rejebian said. Given the extra precautions required and slightly rushed preparation, he admitted the Taste of Armenia lineup might not be as ambitious as in years past, but promised it would nevertheless be “a nice, relaxed atmosphere of great music and dancing.”