BOOK REVIEW by Aris Sevag for The Armenian Reporter Int'l (25 September 2004)
Hayots Badeevuh: Reminiscences of Armenian Life
Levon Z. Boyajian, Hayots Badeevuh: Reminiscences from Armenian Life in New York City, (Reading: Taderon Press) 2003, xiii + 88 pp., photos, ISBN 190365632X, paperback. Available through email@example.com
Mention "Washington Heights, New York" to any knowledgeable Armenian, particularly those who are in their middle or upper years, and invariably they will make the connection to the Holy Cross Church of Armenia, where Archbishop Ghevont Tourian was murdered on December 25, 1933. Just as Sarajevo, the city in central Yugoslavia where Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in 1914, has yet to gain a new association in the popular mind despite the passage of almost a century, so too has Washington Heights remained associated primarily with Archbishop Tourian's murder after three quarters of a century. Of course, both Sarajevo and Washington Heights are much more than mere sites of infamous murders, and the book under review attempts to make a case for the latter.
The publication of this review happens to coincide with the 75th anniversary celebration of Holy Cross Church. (See "New York's Holy Cross Church to Celebrate 75th Anniversary on September 19, 2004" by Florence Avakian in the August 14, 2004 issue of TAR Int'l). Right from the preface, the author, Levon Z. Boyajian, underscores the central role played by this institution: "Our little corner, in a sense, was what was left of the Armenian homeland, for those who ended up in upper Manhattan clustered around the Holy Cross Church on 187th Street." However, Boyajian is not a historian, so readers will have to look elsewhere for more information about the church. (See The Torch Was Passed: The Centennial History of the Armenian Church of America edited by Christopher Hagop Zakian, published by St. Vartan Press, New York, 1998, and Very Rev. Oshagan Minassian's doctoral dissertation, A History of the Armenian Holy Apostolic Orthodox Church in the United States (1888-1944), Boston University School of Theology, 1974, 754 pp.)
Boyajian's focus lies elsewhere: "There was no physical resemblance between this busy, urban, lower middle class, working man's neighborhood and their mostly rural agricultural homeland, for the most part, in western Armenia. But what was left for them was whatever camaraderie they had saved with their countrymen, and their efforts to maintain and perpetuate their history, culture, and religion in this alien world, and to do so for their children."
Commenting on this book, Dr. Haikaz Grigorian so aptly states that its author "has focused our attention on "Hayots Badeevuh" (Honor of the Armenians), a psychological phenomenon linked with denial and non-recognition of the first genocide of the twentieth century Hayots Badeevuh is a universal condition to all Armenians inhabiting the globe." If for no other reason, this book should be must reading, especially for young Armenians, who are growing up in a day and age when the concept of Armenian honor and the importance of upholding it has gotten lost to a certain extent, both in the Homeland and in the Diaspora.
Hayots Badeevuh is largely a pastiche of snapshots of family and community life in Washington Heights, the unremarkable story of a nevertheless remarkable people in the early to mid 20th century. The three mainstays of their lives were home, church, and hantesses, both indoors and outdoors, almost always with formal entertainment. The inherent divisiveness of political parties and compatriotic societies nevertheless did not prevent personal friendships from developing across lines of separation. This was perhaps a byproduct of the "coffee house" or "club," of which there many and where discussion and debate of political topics was paramount. Dominant themes, which run like thread throughout the story, are respect for one's elders and strong bonds, made possible by constant visiting, both informal (any time) and formal (especially on Sundays).
Mention is made of public figures only insofar as there was a connection between them and the-author's family. These include Very Rev. Yeghishe Simonian, pastor of Holy Cross Church from 1935-1965 and then Prelate of the Western Diocese; Fr. Terenig Poladian, head of the seminary at Antelias (1944-1956), who, we learn, was killed on November 22, 1963, the same day as President John F. Kennedy, by a disgruntled individual whose candidacy for the priesthood had been rejected by the victim; and a Dr. Gregory, "one of their countrymen, who had pioneered the establishment of psychiatric service at Belleview Hospital in NYC."
The text is enhanced by the mention of a few characters: "Soosly John"; "Hratch, a man straight out of Damon Runyan," also called "Harry the Greek"; the importer-exporter Dickranian; and single woman "Dika" (short for Dikranouhi). Yet these individuals are tame in comparison with those, albeit of an earlier era, who populate Amerigahai Badgemer [Armenian-American Sketches] by Bedros Keljik, published in 1944 by Yeprad Press in New York, my translation of which incidentally awaits publication.
Although the author's description of family members and relatives may not be of much interest to readers in general, the latter will perhaps seek to find similarities and parallels with members of the previous generations in their own families.
Hayots Badeevuh makes no pretense of being anything but one's recollections of the urban environment in which he grew up: "Washington Heights was a microcosm of urban immigrant America, and the Armenians had their place in it. It was our town." However, this slim volume serves to whet the reader's appetite for other memoirs and, why not, histories of the Armenian community of Washington Heights and other sections of New York City. As such, it has served its purpose adequately.