Monday, September 25, 2006

Taking Visitors

My mother-in-law was visiting us this weekend, and she wanted to go to church with me. Her biggest complaints were:

1) The service was not in English


2) It was impossible to follow along with the Badarak book. My church doesn't have the nice, new brown ones; it has the older blue ones. The new brown ones are easier to follow.

Afterwards, I introduced her to the choir director, and when my MIL started talking about how she wished the sermon was in English, the choir director very adeptly handled her complaints, by stating that we have a lot of people who don't speak English, and the service is in Classical Armenian anyway, which isn't what people speak, and perhaps it would work better if she looked at it as art, as a performance, rather than a religious ceremony.

She also said that if we did everything in the book, we'd be there for four hours! Hee. So true.

I elected to not sing with the choir yesterday so I could help my MIL follow along with the service. I think this was good- otherwise, she would have been completely lost.

It is kind of difficult to understand what is going on if you don't have someone to explain it to you. As a newcomer, I found that singing in the choir was by far the easiest and fastest way to get on board with what was going on.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Armenian Church Vocabulary

If you are like me, you know very, very little Armenian, either liturgical or conversational. This post will help you out with some of the vocabulary you will need to know to get along in the church:


If you are visiting the Armenian Church for the first time, people will probably assume you know Armenian, and try to talk with you. In my regular church, people are happy if you even just know a little. This list will also help you out if you are an odar (outsider, i.e. a non-Armenian) dating an Armenian. If you are lucky (like me), you will be familiar with the pronunciation, and can pronounce "gh" and "kh" etc. This is all Western Armenian, by the way.

Eenchbes es/ek? - How are you? ("es" is "you are" informal, "ek" is "you are" formal. It's like tu/usted in Spanish)
Lav em - I am fine
Shad lav - very well
Paree looys - good morning
sireli - dear ones (you will sometimes hear the priest address the congregation as "sireli")
shnor hagalem - thank you
Keech keedem - I know a little (as in "I know a little Armenian")
chem keeder - I don't know
Ayo - yes
Voch/che - no. There is some disagreement among my sources about which to use when. Voch seems to be the formal "no" and che (literally "it's not") is the informal "no," but according to my mother, her mother wouldn't let them say "voch" because (and I'm translating loosely here) "brats say voch." Not sure what the real story is there, but "ayo" seems to be more helpful anyway, although knowing "che" will help you pick out the negative expressions in a conversation.
aysor - today

This is enough to get by. People will know you don't know Armenian, but they will appreciate your efforts nonetheless.


The liturgy is in Classical Armenian, which apparently isn't much like either Eastern or Western Armenian. Here are some terms that will help you understand what the heck is going on during the Badarak.

Badarak - literally, "sacrifice", but used to refer to Armenian church service.
Der Hayr/ Soorp Hayr- the priest. Der Hayr is a married priest, and Soorp Hayr is a celibate priest. Soorp Hayr may also possibly refer only to those celibate priests who have achieved a particular level in the hierarchy, but I am not sure about this. I don't think that this is the case, but it's possible (hey, we're all learning here)
Der voghormia - Lord, have mercy. This gets used A LOT in the service.
Soorp - Holy
Khatch - Cross
Hayr Mer - Our Father (the Lord's Prayer
Adzvadz - God
Hoki - spirit
Hokehankist - literally "spirit rest," hokehankist is the service after the Badarak said in memory of those who have died. You have it said a certain period of time after the death (40 days?), and then every year.

The Feast of the Holy Cross (Soorp Khatch)

Today is the last major feast of the calendar year- the Feast of the Holy Cross, or Soorp Khatch. Soorp means holy, and khatch means cross. This is a name day for anyone named Christopher, Christian, Christine, Christina, etc.

My first clue that something was going on was this huge tray of basil up on the altar (not on the altar, but on the "stage" (for lack of a better word) where the priest and the deacons are during the service. I asked one of my fellow choirmembers (who are always so sweet to explain things to lil' ol' ignorant me) what it was, and she explained that today was the Feast of the Holy Cross. She also said that basil is used because that is what they (the apostles? Mary?) found growing at Christ's tomb.

This feast is important because it reminds us that the cross is important to Christians because it reminds us of Christ's sacrifice. The Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church (in the USA) provides a nice description of the significance of this feast, and one of the historical events that it celebrates.

The cross is important to all Christians (well, perhaps excepting those who go to nondenominational megachurches, who shun religious symbolism like crosses and crucifixes because they make people "uncomfortable."), but especially to Armenians, who even have their own style of cross. If you go to Badarak, you will see people crossing themselves all the time. The priest is always turning around and making the sign of the cross over the congregation. The act of crossing yourself is very important.

Sometimes it is hard to distinguish what rituals are based in religion, and what is mere tradition, but one of the other traditions of the day is eating harisa- this is a porridge of pounded wheat and meat, which is not nearly as gross as it might sound. Traditionally, it's made by the community, and people take turns stirring it over the night. I don't know much more about it than this.

If anyone else knows more about this, please jump in with the comments. I would like this blog to teach and inform as well as to be a place where I can learn as well.

A Year in the Armenian Church

This month marks one year since I started attending the Armenian Church on a regular basis. Let me begin at the beginning.

While I was baptized into the Armenian Church as an infant, I grew up in a city without its own church. We would have a visiting priest come through about once a year to celebrate the Badarak (mass), and until my mom got mad at the visiting priest, we went once a year. After that incident, my family never went again, until they got a different visiting priest, which was after I went off to college.

Service once a year also means that we didn't have things like Armenian Sunday School. We did have Armenian School for a while when I was little, but it was excruciating. I was only 3, and there were probably 10 of us in one class... ages 3 (me, the youngest) through age 12. Can you imagine? Who decided to structure that class?

When I was little, there was a sizable Armenian community in my hometown, and sometimes the local newspaper would cover our Armenian picnics, baptisms (there was a whole article on my baptism in the newspaper, and a picture of my sister's), and other events as part of their community coverage. At one point, they did an article on Armenian School, on the front page of the style section. There is this great picture of the teacher looking down at me and another girl (who was 4), and an older boy. I am looking up at her with this incredible crazy look of total defiance, which is hilarious to me, because that expression sums up how I felt about this class.

I don't remember too much about it, but I do remember that it was incredibly boring. I was a really bright little girl. Really bright. And what would we do in Armenian School? We would go around and recite the numbers in order. Every lesson. The teacher would start, and then we'd go by age and say our number. So the teacher was "meg" (one), and since I was the youngest student, I would always have to say "yergu" (two). Every lesson. Yergu. Yergu. Yergu. For a bright little girl in the prime time for language learning, this was excruciatingly boring. One day, I decided that I was tired of saying yergu, and I decided that I would say another later number that I liked better instead. I think it was "yota" (seven). The teacher was furious! I am sure she thought I was stupid and disobedient, but really, I was trying to spice up my lesson. Armenian school ended shortly after that.

To sum up, I knew only a very few words of Armenian (what I would call "toddler Armenian"- anything a mom would say to her toddler), and even less about the Armenian Church. Since I am only half Armenian ("odar"- outsider - is one of the words that I knew, since that describes my dad), all I really had was my name (thanks Mom! She informed my dad that since we were getting his incredibly WASPy last name, she was giving me and my sister Armenian first names), the food (naturally), and my membership in the Armenian Church.

As an aside, the Armenian Church really knew what they were doing when they combined Baptism and Christmation (first Communion)- none of this confirmation at age 7, or adult decision to be baptized, or anything that would risk your membership in the Church after your parents managed to get their acts together long enough to get you baptized. Your parents get pissed at the church and quit taking you? Or they die and can't take you? Or you move away to a place where there is no church? No problem! Once they've got you, they've got you! This actually makes this much, much easier for people like me, and I'm sure this practice is rooted in historical context.

I have wanted to learn more about the Armenian Church since going to my cousin's Greek Orthodox wedding nine years ago. This cousin is not Greek at all, but my aunt and uncle go to the Greek Orthodox church as the closest proxy to the Armenian church around. (We went to various Protestant churches, if we went at all) Orthodox weddings are SO different, and it was fascinating. I have always been drawn to learning about religions, and the rituals of the church were really captivating.

At college, I thought I might get involved with the Armenian Club, which did exist, but wasn't that active. I didn't have a car, so never managed to go to services. After I got out of college and started working, I tried a couple of local Armenian churches in the city where I was living, but I didn't find them tremendously welcoming, I had no idea what was going on, I couldn't follow along, I didn't understand Armenian and there was NO English at all, it took forever, the churches weren't close to my house, etc. So I decided not to go anymore.

Then I moved out to California, which is Armenian Central, and I decided to give the Armenian Church another try. I went to the one that was local to my university (I'm not in LA or Fresno, so I don't have a ton to choose from), and same old same old. I didn't go back. Then, after getting married, I got up the nerve to try the Armenian Church close to my husband's university (in a totally different part of California- long story), and with minimal effort on my part (this is very important and will be another post later), I discovered that it was a very friendly place. After getting the hang of that church, I started going to the other church close to my university when I was in the area. It's not the most friendly church, but it's not bad and it helps me feel connected.

It has been almost a year since I started attending regularly, and I decided I would try to blog about the next year in the Armenian Church. I hope it will be a year, anyway- we will be moving after my husband graduates in about 9 months, and I hope we end up somewhere with an Armenian Church! That is 9 months away, though, and I will cross that bridge when I get to it.