What It Takes to Become a Proud Armenian

Dr. Ara and Milka Jeknavorian find retirement very much Armenian.(Photo: Kevin Jacobus)
Dr. Ara and Milka Jeknavorian find retirement very much Armenian.(Photo: Kevin Jacobus)

As the daughter of a prominent Armenian writer, Lorig Gelenian knows first hand what it means to be a conscientious Armenian.

She was raised in the same spirited mold as her father. And carried it throughout her career as a schoolteacher and as a community activist.

Her dad, Hamasdegh Gelenian, would have been proud to see his legacy passed through the generations.

“The first obligation of a good Armenian is not to contribute to the extinction of the Armenian people,” said Gelenian. “It’s not to perpetuate the work of the genocide begun by the Turks. That means one must work to ensure that our ethnic identity, our culture and language, will continue.”

Exactly what does it take to perpetuate our rich Armenian heritage, and what specifically is our role to play?

“In a diaspora, one cannot be a solitary Armenian,” Gelenian pointed out. “While a small number may contribute through their creative work in scholarly, literary, musical, or cultural pursuits in general, most of us must contribute in different ways. While contributions may be financial ones, the more vital contribution is a communal one. It requires involvement.”

Gelenian emphasized that a commitment be made with others to build and maintain the religious, educational, social, cultural, and charitable structures in our communities—to keep Armenians together and encourage a younger generation to grow involved.

“Because of the strained circumstances in which Armenians find themselves today, living as refugees, orphans with inadequate shelter under harsh, hostile, and indifferent governments, there is an additional requirement,” Gelenian said.

“We who live with some degree of comfort have to reach out and help ensure that as a people, we can survive, endure, prosper, and perpetuate our identity as Armenians.”

Dr. Ara Jeknavorian is spending his retirement years educating students in public schools throughout Massachusetts on the Armenian Genocide. His vast organizational goals and church life as an ordained deacon only serve to enhance the cause, mindful of a growing family and fraternity. He has his own thoughts about being a good Armenian.

“So-called ‘good’ Armenians would seem to be blessed with a relentless passion to preserve and grow their heritage and faith—to protect the rights and welfare of Armenians throughout the world,” he said. “The ‘goodness’ can become manifested in ways like offering a prayer inside an Armenian church, writing a letter to a government official concerning the welfare of Armenians, buying and reading an Armenian book, learning to cook an Armenian meal, and teaching a class.”

As a grandparent, Jeknavorian hopes he and others like himself can pass the inspiration to forthcoming generations.

“I want to see my grandchildren singing the sharagans in church and carry an Armenian flag in memory of their martyred ancestors,” he brought out.

His wife Milka, a longtime educator in both American and Armenian schools, concurs with her husband, looking to people like Louise Ajemian as a catalyst in her Chelmsford community.

“Louise had been a Sunday School superintendent over 20 years and belonged to my church for half a century,” Milka recalled. “She was Armenian through marriage and people like myself didn’t realize that. She lived and practiced the faith and culture of her husband’s ancestry so sincerely and genuinely that it was seamless. She spoke enough Armenian that you assumed she learned it from her parents.”

Milka added that Armenian-ness comes from the heart and should be felt by the future generations.

“We nurture it and enrich it by immersing ourselves into everything Armenian,” she concluded.

Serving as a sub-deacon in the Armenian Church has more than inspired Jeremy Oldham. He wed an Armenian, took the time to learn Classical Armenian, and serves on the altar of Sts. Vartanantz Church each Sunday. Don’t call him an “odar” unless you want a quick reprimand.

“A good Armenian to me is a person who plans an active role by growing involved in church and community,” Oldham said. “It’s someone who keeps our traditions alive by organizing events, teaching, writing, marching, playing music, and bringing children to church. The greatest ones seem to do it all.”

A strong friendship with other Armenians became another outlet for Oldham, along with cultivating his own children.

“Teaching kids the value of what it means to be an Armenian is imperative,” he said.

Harry Derderian makes his home outside Detroit after growing up in Indian Orchard, Mass., where he belonged to the AYF. He’s lived the best of both worlds—in a small Armenian community as well as large. He’s served in organizations, coached and taught the younger generation, and prides himself in keeping his family both Armenian and oriented.

“Attending an Armenian church is vital, but look to get involved,” he said. “Volunteer your time at a picnic. Play a teaching role. Write a letter to a Senator on April 24th and involve yourself in Armenian-related activities.”

It’s not all about the adult generation, either. Children, too, have offered their thoughts on the subject.

“I think of the victims we lost in the genocide and pray for them,” said Ava Movsessian, an 11-year-old essay contest winner. “It does me proud that we stayed as a country despite all the hardships.”

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
Tom Vartabedian

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