Easter Miracles

Shnor-ha-vor (soorp) za-deeg
Happy Easter!

Easter Sunday was a big deal in our Armenian church when I was growing up. Of course, it was the fifties and sixties, so standards and expectations were quite different then. In many ways, that’s a loss for kids of today.

Weeks before Easter, preparations were made, both at the church and in the homes of members.

Solicitations appeared in the church bulletin and weekly service programs for donations of lilies and other décor for the altar and other parts of the church.

Choir practice ramped up to make choices about just the right music and ensure that the members of the choir knew and could sing the chosen pieces well. All amateurs, planning and practice was essential to our (yes, I was in the choir) performing respectably – sometimes even commendably!

And in homes all over Troy, NY and nearby, even the least financially endowed church members pieced together the money to buy Easter outfits, complete with hats, purses, gloves, and often white patent leather shoes. In our family, that sometimes included new spring coats as well, although that didn’t happen every year. Even on non-holiday Sundays, we dressed up for church. But Easter pushed that to another level. The downside of that plan in the great northeast was the likelihood of frigid and sometimes snowy or rainy weather that interfered with the planned image!

On ordinary Sundays the church enjoyed modest attendance, regulars who were there every Sunday barring unforeseen circumstances. On Easter when I was a child, it was standing room only, a circumstance that both thrilled and baffled me. Where were all those people on other Sundays? You might say I had somewhat of an all-or-nothing view of the world around me in those days.

Easter today still is celebrated among Christians, but there seem to be fewer of us who actively practice our faith. My church is closed—others are, too. It’s a loss on many fronts. But people and our country evolve.

And the good news is Easter still is celebrated by millions, in this country and around the world. The revered Notre Dame Cathedral won’t be holding services this Easter, but who can ignore the message of the miraculous survival of the glowing cross and other significant symbols among the embers and ashes?

Till next time….

Gu des-nu-veenk no-ren
I’ll see you again!

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Armenia – Small Country, Huge History

Ancient Armenia:

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IMG_2785 (2)                                                                (Armenia today)

Armenia’s conversion to Christianity between 301-314 AD made it the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion, predating Ethiopia (330 AD) and Rome (380 AD). Religion was a key component in the conscious effort to establish a distinct identity in the region.

Religion also formed the foundation of their social systems, arts, and education.
The first complete printed Armenian bible is dated at 1666. But during ancient and medieval times the books comprising the Bible were laboriously copied by hand, with each book bound separately and traded between churches. The printing press made it possible to publish the separate books together as a complete bible in 1666, with woodcut illustrations taken from the 1857 Dutch Bible Sacra. One thousand copies were printed but only about one hundred survive today, five of which are held in the collection of the Armenian Library and Museum of America.

Christianity found its way into every facet of Armenian life. This 1735 copper tray depicts Christ and the 12 Apostles . It was designed and commissioned by the monk Elija, who donated it to the Armenian Catholicos Ghoukas I Atchabahian The inscription in classical Armenian is in rhymed verse, suggesting that the designer was highly educated. The tray was saved from destruction during the Armenian Genocide by a man named Garabedian, who strapped it to his back (it weighs 80lbs) and climbed across the Taurus Mountains with it. He brought it to Lebanon and it was subsequently shipped to New York City.

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Armenians are famed for their beautiful religious art: church architecture, illuminated manuscripts and intricate Khatchkars (stone crosses). But the most famous form of artistic expression was through textiles. From time immemorial Armenian women have created and ornamented clothing and created works that delighted the wearer and viewer. A bride’s worth and reputation was judged by her hand skills.

This embroidered panel from the late 19th century has a dark blue handwoven cotton fabric base, embroidered with interlaced embroidery (called nakash) in circles, crosses and other geometric designs.
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The art of doll making, once specifically intended for children, became a means of expressing the yearning for a lost homeland for Armenian-American women. Dolls are a means of celebrating the lost traditions of folk dress that once defined all Armenian women, identifying their ethnicity, social class and region of origin.
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Next time, more about the Armenian people and how they found their way to America.

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ARMENIAN DELIGHTS

Since late last fall, I’ve been immersing myself in all things Armenian, as I have begun to formulate a direction for my book about Armenian families. Although my childhood was consumed with Armenian foods and practices, I slid away from that after I married and allowed my jobs to consume me. The more I’ve reconnected with my “inner Armenian,” the stronger the pull to be more involved has grown.

Armenian CDs (4)

I’ve often listened to music as I worked on writing endeavors. Now, as I pursue the preliminary efforts toward envisioning what form the book will take, my music of choice is Armenian folk and dance.

I’ve delighted in revisiting the food of my young and Armenian church-going days, tweaking recipes from my old Rose Baboian Armenian Cookbook until my palate recognizes just the right combination of flavors from those days.

My first culinary adventure was Lahmajoun.
Lahmajoun
My mother used to describe it to non-Armenians as an Armenian pizza. A mixture of ground lamb, green and red peppers, tomatoes and a long list of seasonings spread thinly on a thin base of bread dough create a one-of-a-kind experience for your palate. Even if you think you don’t like lamb, you should try this!

We never made it at home, but I knew exactly when I hit on my aunt’s cheoreg creation, a yeast roll that is slightly sweet and made unique with a near east seasoning called mahlab. The version in this picture are simple round shapes. But you might also see them rolled into pencil-size ropes that are braided together and/or curled into a pretzel look-alike.

Cheoreg

Next up was the Armenian Sugar Cookie (left) and Easter Gurabia (right), both sinful sugar cookies that melt in your mouth for an orally orgasmic experience. These are dangerous if you don’t want to replace your jeans with a larger size!

Sarma and Dolma were on last week’s menu. Sarma is cabbage stuffed with a meat (lamb is best, but others can be used) and rice mixture. When you use the mixture to stuff peppers and other vegetables, it’s called Dolma.Sarma and Dolma

And yesterday I had a delightful experience making Yalanchi with a group of women at St. Peter’s Armenian Church in Watervliet, NY. I joined them for 3 hours during which we made in excess of 1100 stuffed grape leaves! This photo isn’t from that batch, but looks the same, although not piled as high as our group creation! These may look familiar, as they are found on some salad bars and are a culinary concept shared with the Greeks.

Yalanchi

 

I’ve lost a lot of years of connection with fellow Armenians. But the renewal has been most enjoyable – AND inspiring. Each new experience and person I encounter brings me closer to my original goal: to write about Armenian Americans. But a pleasant bonus has been my enjoyment of reconnecting with my heritage and the welcoming warmth of my widening circle of Armenian friends.

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ARMENIAN STRONG!

TwoArmenianWomenW_Rifles

If I’ve learned nothing else since embarking on learning more about my Armenian heritage, it is that Armenian women are incredibly strong.

During the marches of the genocide from roughly 2015 to 2018, the trek through the deserts and mountains were made predominantly by women and children. Countless died along the way. Most were raped. Beaten. Starved. Parched. Watching others shot when they slowed the march. But imagine the resilience of a woman, carrying a small child, walking from what is now Syria to Egypt! Look it up on a map. One of the women I interviewed was the grandchild of the woman and the daughter of that child who made that trek.

Could you do that?

Could you leave your dead infant in the desert? Or your elderly father? Knowing that you had to continue to survive?

Can you imagine being thirsty enough to risk you and your child drinking tan water?
It was all about survival. A powerful human instinct.

Can you imagine leaving everything you ever knew, boarding a crowded ship with strangers, with the sole goal of surviving to make it to the shores of a welcoming nation?

And then arriving to find that while the government welcomed you, your new peers thought you were strange and laughed at you.

And yet they went on. Those who were betrothed (marriages were arranged in those days) hoped and prayed someone who knew someone who knew the whereabouts of your future husband would greet you at Ellis Island.

And they set about doing what women in that day did – established a home. Often it was in the home of the in-laws, and sometimes that didn’t go all that well. But they had to focus on moving forward. Raising the child/children who might have survived the deserts and mountains and ships. Connecting with others from their own village (the Armenian immigrants tended to reconnect with other survivors, familiar faces and names from home villages like Marash, Kharpert, Van. Immersing themselves in the activities of their churches – Ladies Aid, Sunday Schools.

Early Sunday School

And dancing. Finding joy in making the music of their homeland and the familiar steps of the dances. Dances and music were an outlet. That and the church and their home village groups kept them anchored as they acclimated to their new lives in a new land.

Armenian-Dance-e1469608083945

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ARMENIAN STRENGTH AND RESILIENCE

HA’/EE YEM!   A-ME-REE-GA-TSEE YEM!

I am Armenian! I am American!

[Scenes From the Armenian genocide (shaded due to graphic nature): Left-bodies prior to burning; Top right-public hangings; Bottom right-refugees boarding lifeboats at Smyrna]

An internet video search of the Armenian genocide returned literally hundreds of videos! And yet so many people don’t even know of its existence.

At least part of the reason for this is that, unlike the Jewish Holocaust, the United States has never officially recognized the murder of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Why? Despite books and movies depicting it (The Promise was the most recent), and the words on paper and in video of survivors and their loved ones, and actual photos of the horrors, Turkey has denied it ever occurred, claiming it was an isolated occurrence of abuses committed by some officials. Photos, eyewitnesses and survivors prove otherwise. But Turkey, dishonorable as it is even in today’s world, is a member of NATO and officially an ally (though a shaky one) of the United States.
The tentacles of politics strangle acknowledgement of a horror unmatched in modern history until the Nazis.

Did you know that Armenians honored the 100th anniversary of the genocide in 2015? I’m an Armenian, and I missed it. The hatred and intermittent killing of Armenians by the Turks had a long history prior to 1915 and began ramping up systematically around 1895. Lands were confiscated. Threats were common, and all too often were carried out. People disappeared. My own ancestors saw what might be coming and like many other Armenians, began immigrating to America, often via Syria or France, in the late 1800s.

In the early years of the first decade of the 20th century, a change of Turkish leadership provided Armenians with what turned out to be a false sense of security. As was also the case with the Jews, the relative prosperity of the Armenians provoked the envy of their neighbors. The fact that they were of a different religion (Turks were Moslems, Armenians were the first Christians) fanned flames and made Armenians objects of suspicion and resentment. The outbreak of World War I turned these elements into an explosive mixture of hate and fear. Armenians were presented by official propaganda as agents of the Russians and were somehow blamed for Turkey’s military setbacks. The Young Turks portrayed the Armenians as a threat to the state.

April 24, 2015 marks the fatal date when several hundred Armenian intellectuals were rounded up, arrested and later executed. This was the start of the “official” Armenian genocide, a bloody massacre that lasted until 1917.

In addition to 1915-1917, the massacres occurred in 1894-1896, 1909, and repeated again between 1920 and 1923. The scope and ruthlessness of these dates, though, do not compare with the mass slaughter of 1915-1917, which is correctly described as genocide. In his book, “A Peace to End All Peace,” David Fromkin described the terrible fate of the expelled Armenians: “Rape and beating were commonplace. Those who were not killed at once were driven through mountains and deserts without food, drink or shelter.”

What impresses me most as I learn more about the survivors of the genocide was their strength and resilience. Refusing to dwell on the horrors and losses, American Armenians embraced their new country and the opportunities provided here. The final scene in the movie, The Promise, reflects this – watch it, if you haven’t already! The children and grandchildren I’ve interviewed show similar strength, manifested in in their ability to adapt to changing lives, but also in a streak of stubborn independence that is reflected in many life choices, including sometimes a resistance to compromise.

More about this as my journey continues!

My regards to all!

HAR-KANK-NE’-RUS PO-LO-REEN!

 

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DANCE MEMORIES-ARMENIAN STYLE

I’m sitting here at my computer, immersing myself in my Armenian story with the accompaniment of Armenian music. The music has triggered memories of long-ago experiences: background music at some unidentified event with my cousins near Boston; a wedding where a belly dancer gyrated to the music to entertain the guests, eliciting positive and negative oohs and aahs. “Look at her amazing moves!” “What will the minister think?” “How does she spin like that without tripping on her scarves and veils?” Don’t ask me whose wedding, because I can’t recall. But it was someone from our church because the minister in question was our minister; another time when friends from the Armenian Protestant Youth Fellowship were visiting because one or more of them were playing Armenian dance music at a local event. Weddings and other family events with Armenian music, the mostly women on the dance floor patiently demonstrating the steps. In my memories, men rarely were on the dance floor with us – but if you Google Armenian dance, part of what you will find is groups of men dancing. I need to learn more about the cultural forces at play.

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And a more recent experience, visiting with one of the Armenian ladies from our church, when she put on music and as at those events past, demonstrated the steps – but too fast for me to follow before she moved on to a different pattern when the music changed. Her music was not Armenian specifically – but rather Middle Eastern. If there’s a difference, it was too subtle for me to identify. It was this haunting music at her home and the memories triggered that nudged me to purchase music of my own.

According to Wikipedia: “The Armenian dance (Armenian : Հայկական պար) heritage has been considered one of the oldest and most varied in its respective region. From the fifth to the third millennia B.C., in the higher regions of Armenia, the land of Ararat, there are rock paintings of scenes of country dancing. These dances were probably accompanied by certain kinds of songs or musical instruments.”

As I listen to the music and view the images in my brain, I feel like it’s all a part of me and I of it. Maybe there’s something to those multiple lives theories, and I was an Armenian dancer in a past life!

Armenian dancers

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A STORY BEGINS TO EMERGE

According to legend, the Armenians were descended from one of Noah’s sons after the landing of the Ark on Mount Ararat. Some specialists believe that the “Arimoi” mentioned by Homer in the Iliad may have been among the remote forebears of the Armenians.

(Taken from the Introduction to the Second Edition of Reverend Abraham Hartunian’s Neither to Laugh Nor to Weep. The introduction was written by Marjorie Housepian Dobkin of Barnard College in April, 1986)

Reverend—or Badveli, as the Armenian ministers are called—documented his, his family’s and so many others’ experiences with the massacre of the Armenians. “The premeditated, ruthless, official campaign by the Turkish government to exterminate Turkey’s Armenian minority—which began in 1895—ground relentlessly through 27 years and two million deaths.” He documented how a once proud people was reduced to scattered and ragged remnants. The quiet voice of Abraham Hartunian offers a profound warning: “When governments forget that they are dealing with human beings, not abstract problems, the results can be horribly inhuman.”

Massacre photo-Hartunian bookSoup Kitchens in AintabSleeping in Streets

As I have sat with and listened to stories of first generation Armenian Americans–those whose parents survived the massacres and immigrated to America to ensure the survival of their children, the stories have shared many commonalities, all against the backdrop of horror beyond description left behind in their native land:

  1. They rarely if ever spoke of the worst of their experiences. Women in their eighties and nineties I’ve spoken with had nuggets of information that shed some light on what their parents went through. Some had stories that had risen to legend within their families.
  2. They embraced their new homes in America. Most were actively involved in their churches. They learned English. They had to prove before they were processed through Ellis Island that they had a place to live and a way to earn a living–and that they were healthy.
  3. Many started in one city and ultimately settled in others.
  4. Many started businesses – food markets popped up on every corner; stores sold rugs and furniture.
  5. Large groups of Armenians settled together. A good example is the migration of Armenians to Watertown, MA to work at the Hood Rubber Company.
  6. First generation offspring saw themselves as Americans – many placing their American identity above their Armenian heritage.

Although the men held the leadership positions in their churches, the women held the fabric of the church community and Sunday School together:

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And the story continues. It’s a story of survival, of strong wills, of self-determination and positivism.

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