We in the diaspora are losing one of the most pleasurable elements of our culture: toast-mastering, or tamadayutyun in Armenian.
This is ever more apparent when we gather for feasts and our glasses cling together for a mere “Genats.” We have lost the words that define Armenian gatherings, and we are losing the spirit of Armenian get-togethers. Yes, we do sing and dance. But the night is never complete without the eloquent long toasts of a tamada, or toastmaster.
Tamadas are abundant in Armenia. Every table has one. Every person thinks they are one. The centuries-long tradition is a great method to acquire confidence and speech and social skills. The tamada must not only entertain his guests with the best of toasts and poems, but he must make sure that every single person is having the time of his life.
Alas, we see less of tamadas in the diaspora. We can learn a lot from other nations such as the Celts, but their toasts of simple “Cheers” leaves me empty and craving something more—some semblance of Highlander etiquette.
Since many of the genocide survivors of Western Armenia crossed over into Russian-ruled Eastern Armenia, today’s Republic of Armenia is the cultural address of the collective culture of the Armenian Highlands. But we in the diaspora seem to have misplaced that address when it comes to the tamada custom.
My father is one of the very few individuals in Jerusalem that has the ability to carry out the duties of a tamada, and he usually does it with flying colors. But again, he is an exception. He speaks of other Jerusalemite tamada that have long passed by now. The sad truth is that we don’t have a new generation of tamada, not only in Jerusalem but the diaspora as a whole.
Being born with a natural stammer has impeded me from inheriting the beautiful culture practice. And others in the diaspora who do not have similar faults may simply not know the Armenian language that well to be one. Ask them to be the tamada and they will stumble along the way with vocabulary and grammar. That is enough to deter someone from taking up the challenge.
But I am making a call right now: Don’t be deterred. Save the tamada! Our culture is rich and deserves to be kept in all its elegance and bliss. Next time your friend simply yells, “Genats,” smack the glass out of his hand and take the tamada stand. Complement each other, flatter the one you dislike, recite that damn old William Saroyan poem, take your time to find the words (for they will come), and then after you think you’re ready to conclude the toast, slip in another sentence or two just to amuse yourself at the impatience of your friends, as they wait to take the drink.
I have only been seriously intoxicated once in my life. That was in Vanadzor, during lunch in a friend’s garden. The tamada was the woman of the house. In a matter of an hour, I had gulped down more vodka shots than I care to remember. Her persuasive appraisals and speeches caught me off guard and I ended up blacking out. Rumor has it that the whole town came to send off the drunk diasporans.
And here I am waiting for a diasporan to come and sweep me off once more to another black out. Someone besides my dad.