East vs. West


BY TAMAR KEVONIAN

There are so many polar opposites where one side can only exist in the presence of the other. Arctic: Antarctic. Black: White. Tall: Short. But occasionally, although some things seem to be opposites, they are simply variations of the same. Los Angeles: New York. Lakers: Celtics. Apostolic: Catholic.

During the recent basketball playoff games, I was Boston during the pivotal seventh game.  Tension and excitement ran high on both coasts. I considered whether I should reveal my L.A. origins or affinity for the Lakers while watching the game in the tavern, surrounded by serious Celtics fans. In the end, the city’s residents accepted the loss gracefully and we all agreed that it was “just a game.”

The remainder of the weekend following the game consisted of several activities taking place in the Boston Armenian community; concerts, graduations and Father’s Day celebrations seemed to be on everyone agenda. Like the Celtics and the Lakers, the Los Angeles and Boston Diasporas seem so dissimilar and yet are so much the same.    “The Armenians here are different,” Harry said, a California transplant who has been living in Boston almost twenty years.  “They have a very different approach to the community,” he continues and points at a building as we drive by. Yet another Armenian name on a building, evidence of a generous gift by a resident who is giving back to the city that has given them so much.

Worcester, Massachusetts is the home of the first significant Armenian community in the United States. It’s easy to meet 4th or 5th generation Armenians whose ancestors settled in the area in the 1890s. Missionaries from the area set up camp in the town of Kharpert and ultimately recruited workers for the factories in the area. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and dedicated, hard working employees where in short supply.

“The husbands came first, then they brought their families,” says Anthony whose own family arrived during that first wave. “My great-uncle was involved in the construction of the first church in this country,” he went on to say, very proud of his family’s involvement in the growth of the community.

After the Hamidian Massacre during final years of the 19th century, where over 200,000 Armenians perished at the hands of the Kurdish agents of the Ottoman Empire, many from Kharpert simply decided they’d had enough and joined their family and friends on the eastern edges of Massachusetts.

Like all immigrant communities they built churches, schools, community centers. They also established clubs, social and civic organizations – many in existence for over 100 years – to serve the needs of their ever growing population. Today their numbers add up to the tens of thousands, their total bolstered throughout the decades by the various waves of immigrants from Turkey, Lebanon, Iran and Armenia. But the core of the community is still made up of the descendants of the original immigrants from Kharpert.    “The difference between us and Los Angeles is that Armenians here hold on to their cultural ways and Armenians over there are  avant guard,” explains Anthony. “We’re listening to Turkish music brought over from the villages and you guys are singing rap inspired songs,” he says, using the reference to music as an example of a much broader ideology.  

Music is the easiest cultural relic to transport but the community in Boston has far more tangible objects in its possession.  Since many families moved here prior to or directly as a result of the Genocide, they brought with them many artifacts directly from their villages. Original clothing, jewelry, books, ceramics, rugs – amongst many items too numerous to name – can all be found at the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA). The treasure trove of original items that have found a final home here were all donated by those who utilized the items, creating a direct link to the original homeland. Perhaps the most dramatic and prized possession of the museum is the Der Garabedian Bible. Written in 1207, it has been in the Der Garabedian family ever since, passing down to the priest in every generation. Now, after 39 generations, the tradition ends with the last surviving family member – a daughter – who has donated it to ALMA believing it to be the most  appropriated location for her family heirloom.

In contrast the Los Angeles community is relatively young. The city experienced a major influx of Armenian immigrants beginning in the 1970’s. Many arrived from their post-Genocide adopted countries, fleeing civil war or revolution, with few belongings – the bare necessities. Relics, antiquities and memorabilia were left behind in favor for expediency.

In the end, both cities have had a profound effect on its residents. Boston, a city steeped in history, contains our historical cultural mementos and has long established institutions and traditions. Los Angeles, a young upstart town whose cultural development coincided with the advent of the automobile and celluloid images, pulls the Armenian culture into the present and is pushing us towards the future. Each aspect of our identity cannot exist without the other: the past sustains us so we can make sense of the future.

The dissimilarities of each community are a compliment to each other and yet they are the same in their Armenian identity and in the end that is all that really matters.

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